2020-2021 Calendar

The Environmental Studies Workshop meets on Zoom every other Friday at 12:00pm CST. Please see below for scheduled presentations.


Fall 2020 Schedule

October 2 – Robert Suits, Department of History, University of Chicago

Ecological Apocalypse Looks Like This

What does an ecological apocalypse look like? Written and visual media have given us many images of what an apocalypse might look like: chaos, looting, warlordism, panic, and social collapse—images that directly inform what even scholarly commentators think social collapse “ought” to look like. But this narrative is an imaginative failure that desperately needs revision. Real-world crises and catastrophes—even the most existentially threatening ones—have painted a very different picture of apocalypse. In this article, I juxtapose fictional apocalypses and historical examples of ecological catastrophe (like the near-total demographic collapse of indigenous American nations) and draw on settler colonial and environmental justice frameworks to rethink apocalypse. I argue that societies respond to ecological catastrophe by tightening social bonds and doubling down on shared values, rather than abandoning either—an orderly apocalypse. In the context of the present-day climate catastrophe, societies like the United States, India, and Brazil have doubled down on shared values of racial supremacy. This collective strategy ensures that the deadliest and most brutal effects of climate catastrophe fall on marginalized members of society—while well-off citizens experience so few effects that their world remains unchanged. Ultimately, this means that an ecological apocalypse is not a hypothetical future event. Rather, an ecological apocalypse is already happening, one that we are unable to recognize because it bears no resemblance to common narratives of catastrophe.


October 16 – Emily Webster, Department of History, University of Chicago

A Plague On the Land, On the Sea, and in the Sewer: Yersinia pestis in Bombay, India, 1897-1914

Historians have gained much traction on the intersection of biopolitical control, colonial medicine, and empire in examinations of the plague in India, and particularly in Bombay. David Arnold labeled the measures enacted in India against plague – most of which were modelled after the original measures in Bombay – “A new interventionism,” marking the increasing invasion of imperial order into the homes and bodies of Bombay’s Indian residents. These unprecedented laws reorganized the geography of biopolitics in the city. Before the outbreak of plague, interfaces of the municipal government and the colonial body occurred at an impersonal scale – through the regulation of municipal sanitary practice, workplace conditions, and urban space; after, the individual body became the focus of imperial attention and action. Bombay’s lower classes found themselves prodded, examined, detained and inoculated by representatives of sanitary structures. Their skin, flesh, and immune systems became sites of imperial regulation. Geographic changes also occurred across ecological scales, affecting both humans and nonhumans. The reorganization of people on the Island promoted distinct changes in population geography, inciting sanitary challenges; meanwhile, at the local level, cleansing and disinfecting practices coupled with slum clearances destroyed the habitats of both human and nonhuman residents.

As an etiology of plague that included rats gained popularity among the British medical community, rats also fell under the biopolitical gaze of the colonial government. Across India, experiments arose that subsumed rats into the colonial medical infrastructure and transformed them from commensal nuisances to vectors of disease. Plague measures transformed the position of rats in the city, both symbolically and literally. Sanitary measures resulted in the displacement and destruction of habitat for rats, placing fleas and their resident microbe, Yersinia pestis, into closer contact with uninfected humans, and created new habitats that suited rat populations in the form of internment camps. Drawing on Gregg Mitman’s framework, “ecologies of injustice,” along with niche construction theory, this chapter explores how human and rat demography changed as a result of the plague epidemic, and how the emergence of the rat-flea theory as the dominant epistemology in the early 20th century changed the position of humans, rats, fleas, and Yersinia pestis in the city and across India.



October 30 – Kemal Isik, DePaul University

Finding (Un)reason in the Necrocene: Bataille on Nature, Intimacy and Sanctity

This project examines the place of reason and destruction in discussions pertaining to the ecological crisis. By referring to the works of Friedrich Nietzsche and Georges Bataille, I will analyze how death, necrosis and sacrifice must be conceived with respect to nature. My investigation will oppose the claim that the ecological crisis is natural outcome of capitalism’s destructive regime, which is materialized in its mass mobilization of resources. Instead, the contemporary crisis, I will claim, must be traced to a unique mode of destruction that becomes visible in the necrotic attitude of capitalism. Referring to Bataille’s account of religion, this presentation will demonstrate the claim that another mode of destruction can be utilized as a remedy to the current crisis. While capitalism and its necrotic mode of sustaining subordinates nature and reduces natural beings to their utility, sacrifice restores the intimacy with nature and elevates the object from its profanity into the domain of the sacred. As a counter-productive measure that enables a creative mode of destruction, sacrifice represents an active –and not reactive- possibility to undermine the reign of reason in the Necrocene.


November 13 –  Katrina Myers, Divinity School, University of Chicago

On Legal and Moral Obligations to People Displaced due to Climate Change

I consider the legal and moral obligations that potential host-countries have towards people who have been displaced because of climate change. I argue that because climate change does not discriminate, the global community must accommodate all people who have been displaced, including those who would be “less desirable” citizens. People displaced due to climate change events are often referred to as “climate refugees.” In actuality, they not qualify for refugee status and have few, if any, legal protections or claims under international or domestic law. Moreover, even if the legal definition of “refugee” were expanded to include those displaced due to climate change, refugee law would still be insufficient. This is because current law allows states to exclude certain people, such as “criminals,” from receiving refugee protection. States justify the exclusion of criminals on security grounds and also because they do not want to reward “bad” people with the privileges of refugee status. When denied refugee status, applicants are returned to their home countries. Such expulsion is unworkable in the context of climate refugees, because climate change will inevitably cause certain countries to become uninhabitable or even disappear. When this happens, there will be no place for climate refugees with criminal backgrounds to be returned to. Rather than trying to bend refugee law to needs of those displaced, however, we should treat displacement due to climate change as a structural injustice that requires forward-looking, shared responsibility. This approach shifts the attention from individuals seeking refuge to the social and political structures that have been unable to resolve and address the current climate crisis. To make this claim, I draw on Iris Marion Young’s account of structural injustice and political responsibility and apply it to climate change. This approach helps us see how a displaced person who has committed criminal acts is also a victim of the structural injustice of climate change. In short, states and other institutions have a responsibility to address the systemic forces of climate change and accommodate all those who have suffered as a result.


November 20 – **Special Event: Book Launch for Victoria Saramago, Fictional Environments: Mimesis, Deforestation, and Development in Latin America**

Please join us for a special event celebrating the publication of Professor Victoria Saramago’s book, Fictional Environments: Mimesis, Deforestation, and Development in Latin America. Featuring comments from Benjamin Morgan (English, University of Chicago), Gisela Heffes (Latin American Literature and Culture, Rice University), and Héctor Hoyos (Latin American Literature, Stanford University)


Dec 4  – Julia Mueller, John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago

Observing Distance (Gilbert White and J.A. Baker)

This essay, a chapter of my dissertation on the writing of attention to the natural world in natural history and lyric poetry, studies the styles of two English observers, the 18th-century parson-naturalist Gilbert White and the 20th-century lyrical naturalist J.A. Baker. In particular, I follow the way they each find expressive means to convey the distance from or nearness to themselves of the living objects of their attention.


Winter 2021 Schedule

January 15 – Thomas Pringle, Stevanovich Institute for the Formation of Knowledge, University of Chicago 

The Climate Proxy: Networked Wildfires and the Digital Cultures of Global Warming

In 2016, a wildfire swept through the Canadian city of Fort McMurray, which neighbors the massive Athabasca Oil Sands extraction site above the world’s third largest oil reserve. The government evacuated 88,000 people as the fire destroyed 2,400 buildings, primarily labor housing. As the crisis unfolded, displaced oil workers flooded social media with videos depicting the large-scale evacuation through a roadside inferno while remote cameras live-streamed homes burning down.

Many climate scientists maintain that the long-term averages of global climate change are not causally perceivable as isolated physical events, such as extreme weather. However, in this case, academics working in predictive terrestrial ecology and specializing in the region’s forests declared the wildfire a “climate crisis” while giving news interviews that, in turn, shaped online discourse about the videos: Did climate change destroy this oil town?

Ultimately, the digital mediation of these fires inspired an outpouring of humanitarian care that helped fund the reconstruction of Fort McMurray’s extractive economy. Rather than holding the auto-ethnographic images produced by the displaced workers as complicit with state organizational commitments to petrocapitalism, I show how their documentary aesthetics played into online environmental debates about correlating wildfires with climate change. Synthesizing methodological conversations in environmental anthropology and media studies, I complicate the humanitarian value of increased documentary visibility as facilitated by networked personal digital devices. In the ideological proxy wars of climate attribution, the “being there” qualities of “climate crisis” mediation become a novel and contested resource for elite actors invested in maintaining the normativity of a carbon-intensive petroleum-based economy.


January 22 – Julia Mead, Department of History, University of Chicago

Return to the Domestic: How Coal Fueled Normalized Czechoslovakia after the Global Energy Shocks, 1973-1979

This paper tells the story of the 1970s global energy shocks from the position of the region where they were supposed to have mattered least: the Eastern bloc. Focusing on Czechoslovakia, I argue that the political viability of late socialism–sometimes known as “consumer socialism”–was dependent on abundant supplies of fossil fuel energy. I show that the global oil crises of the 1970s threatened a precarious social peace based on mass consumption and that this led state planners to double down on coal mining as a substitute for foreign oil. The coal miner became a late-socialist hero through gendered images of miners as masculine “producers” for a nation of consumers. This paper offers interventions in energy history, gender history, and the history of state socialism.


February 5 – Saadia Mirza, Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago

A Phenomenology of Iceberg Collisions

In the year 2000, a group of scientists made the “Tahiti Observation”, a pattern of earthquake signals reaching Hawaii from the Antarctic. Some years later, a group of glaciologists discovered that the signals were coming from the Ross ice shelf in Antarctica, an early warning that an iceberg was about to break off from Antarctica. Sure enough, headlines flashed across world media later that year, when the B15 iceberg broke and wandered off into the sea, a proof that the ice in the poles was melting at a speed faster than previously imagined. Somewhere in the American Midwest, a group of scientists had been listening to the sounds of the ice shelf for over a year, studying through them, the fragile structure of the ice. A new kind of science being born as scientists realized it was possible to hear the “singing of the ice” as it cracked, sheared, slid and trembled beneath the surface. In conversation with glaciologist Douglas MacAyeal and geophysicist Julien Chaput, and through the generous donation of their data, this proposal targets an experience of sound and image mapping to immerse viewers in the uniquely musical qualities of the singing of Antarctic Ice, and the many meanings of its sounds. The sounds employed are not those that can be captured with a microphone while one stands on an Antarctic ice sheet. These sounds are subsurface movements of the “firn” (an inner layer of an ice sheet or glacier that sits between surface snow and the hard ice underneath). It is an experimental technique where acoustic sensing systems are used to understand the geology of the bedrock underlying glaciers and ice-sheets, as well as the fragile structures of the ice itself. I highlight the overlap between artistic and scientific vocabularies in the process as well; through focusing on the use of choreographic and musical terms employed by the scientists in describing the sounds—”spectral glides” and “shimmying resonances”, for example, that have specific meanings for the behavioral physics of the ice sheet.


In this presentation, I will also chart my own fieldwork on the Rhone glacier in the Swiss Alps alongside Swiss glaciologists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) in order to install an acoustic sensing system that allows for micro-quakes and other imperceptible phenomena to be sensed by human observers. Ultimately, the project speaks to a history of how natural objects become meaningful to humans, and how even scientific acts of measurement and observation have a deeply aesthetical and subjective nature. By highlighting the sensory impressions and embodied imaginations that make natural objects like ice meaningful to humans who listen and observe them from a great distance, I hope to “unblackbox” the otherwise obscure scientific processes that are not evident to the public amidst the objectifying imagery of glaciers and ice-sheets that are currently pervasive in media and art activism.



February 19 – Constance de Font-Reaulx, Department of History, Johns Hopkins University

Paris Without Water (1700s-1730s): Toward a Comprehension of Water Scarcity in Early Modern Paris

In an article that has defined the historiography on the history of the provision of drinking water in early modern Paris, Daniel Roche has concluded that the early modern period was “le temps de l’eau rare” (the period in which “water was scarce”). To draw his conclusion, Roche did not embark on a serious archival research, but instead relied on the Ponts-et-Chaussées engineer Pierre-Simon Girard’s writings published in the earlier years of the nineteenth century. In his writings, Girard echoed the discourses of engineers and scientists of the 1750s principally. For these figures of the hydraulic renewal of the 1750s and 1760s, water scarcity was not a natural, social, and political occurrence. It was a rhetoric they often employed as a beacon to urge the Municipal Board and the Crown to grant them the patent letters they needed to transform the nature and structure of water supply in Paris. In these accounts, scarcity was not in itself an event occurring at a specific time, but the perpetual condition of the waterless French capital. As such water scarcities remain obscure historical events.

How was water scarcity observed? What were the triggers and causes? How did the population cope with it? These are the questions this chapter answers by focusing on the periods of scarcity that unfold between 1700 and 1730. These shortages, I argue, were due to different phenomena rooted not only in physical or natural phenomenon, but also in socially and politically decisions to respond to the growth of Paris and new demands for water associated with poor management of available resources precipitated this period of severe crisis. As I provide a complete picture of the “diminution extrême” and show how scarcity was not a function of natural causes alone, but rather of municipal failure. This strongly distinguishes the period of 1706–1730s as a unique moment in the history of water in eighteenth-century France.


March 5 – Ramya Swayamprakash, Department of History, Michigan State University

Compensating Works, Competing Ideas: Unintended Consequences of the Livingstone Channel in the lower Detroit River 1913-1917

The lower Detroit River represented a particular and distinct bottleneck for the United States. Whereas both the United States and Canada had invested in ‘improving’ i.e. dredging the shipping channel, albeit to varying degrees, both countries fundamentally disagreed on the scope and impact of such developments. The Canadians, although slow to realize the full import of the Chicago diversion, sought to highlight the impact of a piecemeal approach to developing the lower Detroit River that did not factor in upstream aspects like the diversion. The Americans, on the other hand, advocated a piecemeal approach in an effort to limit the scope of development, and any possible conflict locally. These competing ideas about the scope and impact of improving and developing the lower Detroit River were laid bare in the arguments for and against the compensatory dike as part of the Livingstone Channel construction. Even before the channel  opened for navigation, opposition from Amherstburg had reached a crescendo. So much so that during a special meeting in November 1912, the Canadian government asked for the International Joint Commission (IJC) “to refrain” from reporting on the Livingstone Channel since construction was still incomplete.1 The IJC granted the request and “postponed further consideration of the reference until such time as the Government of Canada would be prepared to proceed.” However, in the meantime, the IJC decided to go to Detroit to examine the river, the channel, and the site of the proposed dike on December 3, 1912, “before the close of the navigation, in order to expedite the investigation.”2The pomp and show of the channel opening did not demoralize its detractors. Shortly after it was open for navigation, the Livingstone Channel gained notoriety for dangerous crosscurrents that made passage difficult further complicated by the narrow channel between the dikes which made maneuvering challenging at best.  

This chapter traces IJC hearings regarding the need for and feasibility of a compensatory dike as part of the Livingstone Channel construction to make four interrelated claims. First, in their attempt to model the river as an efficient trade route, the USACE and LCA had not accurately done so. Canadian arguments for the consideration of the downstream effects of the Chicago diversion pointed out the limits of modelling, since river flow data proved that the diversion, in addition to river improvements were actually draining the Detroit River faster. Consistent Canadian questioning led to an USACE acknowledgement that river improvements were indeed affecting outflow volumes and therefore water levels. In so doing, the river revealed itself as an actor, the second claim of this chapter. The cross currents, increased river pollution, and possible ice flow down the Amherstburg Channel, were in fact the river asserting itself as an actor, unwilling to be treated as merely a pliant and efficient trade corridor. Third, this chapter shows that environmental diplomacy in North America is as much about listening to stories of extraction/manipulation as it is about conservationthat “agreements, practices, trade, and negotiations that degrade and despoil the environment – also need to be included under the definition of environmental diplomacy.”3 Furthermore, this chapter suggests that environmental diplomacy shaped Canadian-United States relations through everyday interactions as well as negotiations at the elite and the executive.4 Fourth, the procedural equality bestowed by the Boundary Waters Treaty (BWT)  was not just a “significant coup”5 of policy making but also enforcement. The IJC’s report following the hearings did not recommend the compensatory dike as first championed by the LCA and the USACE. Instead, it recommended a third version that had not been considered until much later in the hearings. Although eventually the channel was expanded and many more compensatory dikes created, the 1913 hearings and report show that the procedural equality was not just that.  


March 12 – Steven Schwartz, Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago

Genealogical Energy: Kinship and the “Clean” Sociality of Wind Power in Colombia

Why do wind energy corporations in Colombia spend so much time drawing and archiving hundreds of kinship charts? What work might kinship charts perform in creating the infrastructural and sociopolitical conditions for harnessing wind in Colombia’s coastal region of La Guajira? This chapter examines how the making of renewable, low-carbon energy in La Guajira entails the production and visualization of “clean” genealogies of kin relations and territorial occupation of the Wayúu – an indigenous people that claims sovereignty over the prime areas of wind power development. Drawing on long-term ethnographic fieldwork, I explore how the kinship charts seek to convert the widely complex worlds of Wayúu sociality into transparent, atomized and uncontestable visual forms that can congeal the relation between people and windy geographies. Because of the inalienable nature of land and wind in La Guajira, and the power of Wayúu actors to upend projected or existing wind farms, “clean” genealogies of living and deceased kin are regarded by corporations as risk-aversion techniques that can ensure that the “right” indigenous actors are rightfully consenting to host wind turbines and high-power lines in ways that are durable and legitimate. Ultimately, the capacity of these kinship charts to solidify matrilineal social rules into law-like mandates, stripping them of the flexibility they have in social life, reveals how the production low-carbon energy might shape Wayúu indigeneity in novel ways.


Spring 2021 Schedule

April 9 – Jennifer Wenzel, Department of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University

World Imagining and the Niger Delta

We’ll be discussing one of the chapters of Prof. Wenzel’s recent book, The Disposition of Nature, in which she tackles the formal innovations, rhetorical appeals, and sociological imbrications of world literature that might help us confront unevenly distributed environmental crises, including global warming. This chapter examines texts about the Niger Delta in several genres (Ogaga Ifowodo’s poem The Oil Lamp; fiction by Uwem Akpan, Helon Habila, and Ben Okri; the photo-essay anthology Curse of the Black Gold; Sandy Cioffi’s film Sweet Crude). Juxtaposing political ecology’s analysis of natural resource conflicts with Benedict Anderson’s notion of imagined communities, the chapter argues that the relationships among petroleum extraction, literary production, and national imagining in Nigeria are better described as un-imagining, a corollary of underdevelopment as a transitive process of unmaking. Postcolonial citizenship entails a struggle over key questions: What is the state for? To whom do natural resources belong? Oil hijacks the imagination, promising wealth without work, progress without the passage of time. This dynamic manifests as petro-magic-realism, a literary variant of the resource curse hypothesis that blames the ills of resource extraction on the substance rather than social relations. The execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995 galvanized world attention on the Nigerian petro-state; the subsequent explosion of violence in the Niger Delta can be read as a perverse realization of some of his demands for ethnic autonomy and resource control.

April 23 – Alexander Jania, Department of History, University of Chicago

Memorializing Climate Disaster: Disaster Memorials, Public History, and the Fight Against Climate Change

How will we memorialize disasters related to climate change? How should we memorialize disasters related to climate change? It may seem like these questions are too premature. One could ask: Shouldn’t we wait until after climate change is dealt with? Isn’t the worst of climate disaster on the horizon? The premise of this work is that thinking about how to memorialize, and thus how to remember climate disasters is both timely and important for helping to communicate about, mitigate, and prevent future climate related disasters. Based on my research of post-disaster memorialization practices in 20th and 21st century Japan, this presentation explores the problems with disaster memorialization in the United States and the possibilities suggested by modern Japan. I propose that disaster memorials should be seen as vehicles of public history, and thus an important tool that historians can use to frame and contextualize climate change-related disasters for a general public.

May 7 – Eric Gurevitch, Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations & The Committee on the Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science, University of Chicago

Sciences of flow: Weather forecasting, agricultural scholasticism and the meanings of local knowledge

This chapter from my dissertation investigates a set of texts written in the medieval period in South Asia about the closely-related practices of searching for underground water, gardening, and weather prediction. I show how authors writing vernacular language texts drew on earlier astronomical, astrological and meteorological texts written in Sanskrit but made them local through linguistic and epistemic interventions. The chapter argues that scholars in this period used literary resources that valued regional identity to bring the local weather into focus as an epistemic object. It seeks to historicize both local knowledge and the weather in southern India and aims to contribute to ongoing debates about indigenous environmental visions.

May 21 – Amy McLachlan, Global Studies, University of Chicago

A Change in the Air: Spectral Curing in a Uitoto Dreamspace

This chapter traces the transformation of the Colombian armed conflict from a war for territorial control and struggle for peasant rights to land into an increasingly atmospheric conflict. This transformation has been marked, for instance, by the increasing reliance on aerial fumigation of the rainforest canopy in insurgent-controlled and coca-producing regions, including a large portion of Uitoto territory, and in the war’s rendering spectral of Uitoto ties to kin, territory, and more-than-human beings. It has also been marked in the sensory re-attunement of occupied communities to uncanny rainforest spaces where the spirits of the dead, spectral guerrilla groups, and disappeared kin are ever-present and invisible interlocutors. Uitoto spirit medicine, dreaming practices, and sensory attunements to atmospheric registers of the social each make contesting ontological claims (about what exists), epistemic claims (about what is perceptible, what can be known, and how), and relational claims (how human and non-human life are related, and what political possibilities that might entail) against the forms of governance through violent explication that have characterized the Colombian armed conflict since the late 1990s.

May 28 – Alenda Chang, Film and Media Studies, UC Santa Barbara

June 4 – Angélica Marquez-Osuna, History of Science Department, Harvard University

Beekeeping from Below: Twentieth-Century Modern Apiculturists and the Displacement of Native Bees in the Tropics

In the early-twentieth century localities along the Gulf of Mexico incorporated a new system of industrial beekeeping called modern apiculture. This method aimed to maximize the production of honey and wax with the breeding of the honeybee Apis Mellifera. Although this method was developed in the mid-nineteenth century in northern regions of the hemisphere, for some modern apiculturists it became unexpectedly successful in tropical regions. The Yucatan Peninsula, in Mexico, and Cuba acted as locations for experimenting with industrial honey production and the breeding of the honeybee. This paper illustrates how in the early-twentieth century a community of apiculturists and amateurs flourished in these locations. They experimented, shared and published knowledge about modern apiculture in the tropic, and their innovations contributed and were crucial for the expansion of industrial apiculture and the honeybee around the world. While they were creating a new regional habitat for Apis Mellifera, they were also reshaping the role of native bees, such as the stingless bee Melipona Beecheii, and the knowledge and technologies of other honey economies.