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Shafqat Hussain Interviews Jerry Zee, 2014 Rappaport Prize Co-Winner

Shafqat: Please tell us something about yourself and why you chose environmental anthropology (political ecology) as a subject for your PhD?

Jerry: I grew up in California, did my bachelor’s in linguistics and a master’s in anthropology, and I’m currently finishing my PhD in anthropology at UC Berkeley. After graduating college, on something of a whim, I moved to China to work as a program manager at an environmental non-profit in Shanghai, which was my first real education into environmental politics as well as my first education on China. Both were disorienting to me, in the most exciting way. And what was clear and fascinating to me was that both thinking with Chinese politics and thinking with environmental problems would demand the assembling of a critical and political vocabulary that could be glimpsed in things I’d learned as an undergraduate and yet was still yet to come. Because of my job at the time, I was confronted with the feeling that thinking with environments would open something about politics and life in China that couldn’t be pinpointed in any other way, which is what brought me to political ecology, which was an opening into a lot of the other things that populate the analytic and ethnographic landscape of my dissertation. The work has emerged in conversation and encounter across many ways of knowing and acting with environments; my committee is half anthropologists and half geographers, my fieldwork brought me in contact with forestry administrators, ecologists, and Aeolian physicists, all of which have left a stamp on my thinking.

Jerry Zee

Shafqat: What is your dissertation about and what interests you in this particular issue?

Jerry: My dissertation is titled “States of the Wind: Dust Storms and a Political Meteorology of Contemporary China.” Broadly, my dissertation is about dust storms and politics in northern China. Since the early 2000s, the Chinese state has redoubled its programs for combating dust storms which, on the wind, connect desertification and exposed sand in inland, upwind places, with many places downwind along the wind’s path. These include Beijing, but also, over days, Seoul, Japan, and even the US. These programs of ecological construction against the movements of sand on wind have aimed essentially to transform the social and physical topographies of upwind China through environmental engineering, forestry, and new forms of social management oriented toward something called ‘environment.’ I became interested first in how the trajectories of dust storms also suddenly became the template of a political zone for intervening in strange weather, and then, in how the demand to control dust storms worked especially at controlling the relationship between the earth and the wind. My fieldwork tried to replicate this movement, and different fieldsites are arranged as moments in the airstream of a possible dust storm. Dust storms are fascinating as an environmental problem because demanded an attunement to the capacities of sandy earth to become roving atmospheres. So in each chapter I tried to think with sand, wind, and environments as elements in configuring particular political experiments, and then asked how the governing of human life – politics – is given when the focus is not ‘society’ per se, but the ways in which human, botanical, geological, and Aeolian things configure an ‘environment’ which in some way demands a rethinking of some political formation, either at the level of those governing, or for the anthropologist trying to make sense of a politics attuned to entanglements of environmental things.

In the Rappaport paper, “Groundwork,” the problem I wanted to think with was how to grasp a ‘becoming-environmental’ of power in desertifying Inner Mongolia. I was especially interested in how the entanglement of two roots could become taken up as a template for a political understanding of the relationship between human behaviors – which could be adjusted by the configuration of an economic environment – and ecological and geophysical conditions, which could be at least partly controlled by calibrating human behaviors with the demands of a desired ecology. In the meantime, as I wrote it, I realized that anti-desertification politics with a stage for a rethinking of many ideas that you pointed out in your comments: agency, economy, environment.

Shafqat: In your work you argue that the Chinese state achieves an ecological outcome (stop desertification) by manipulating the response of its subjects to economic conditions, created in the economic sphere, thus bypassing the need to target its citizens’ subjectivities. How is this model of neoliberal conservation approach different from other such approaches which use economic incentives to alter behavior? I guess what I am asking is what is specific about the Chinese case here? Also, an implication of such an analysis is that there is no room for individual agency or consciousness. If so, where does your work stand in relation to conventional political ecology, which proclaims to be mission oriented?

Jerry: You’re certainly right to note that there isn’t anything exceptionally novel about thinking about the market as a corrective to environmental degradation. In the chapter what I was more interested in doing was to think about how the creation – through economic subsidies, manipulation of demand, etc. – of an economic environment to ‘catch’ ex-herders after grazing bans raised a certain question of how what the market is and what it does, not as a force of its own, but as part of a theory of human action and its amenability to conditions in an economic ‘environment.’ I’m interested here in coming into a conversation about what ‘marketization’ in China has meant, that has argued that market economics have been deployed as a way in which the state bolsters its own sovereignty, instead of a kind of post-Cold War hope that markets will somehow topple ‘socialism’ and drive political change.

What I really wanted to say is that in these programs the economic sphere becomes one ‘environment’ through which an ecological environment can be managed. They are entangled in such a way that politics aims to transform one to transform the other. And at the center of this is a new conception of the human subject as ‘environmental,’ in two ways. First, insofar as they act in an economic ‘environment,’ their behaviors can be conditioned as the desired response to stimuli. ‘Economic motivation’ becomes an interface between political plans and ecological change. So this is a second sense in which we can think of an ‘environmental subjectivity’ in its intimate relationship with power – manipulating behavior which has physical effects rather than teaching people to, say, care for the environment, becomes a way in which their status as being in a physical environment becomes operationalized politically. And if these programs are neoliberal, it won’t be in the sense of a pull-back of the state against the powers of a market that yearns to be free, but instead, following Aihwa Ong, neoliberalism will be a mobile strategy and logic of intervention, wherein a certain kind of subject is presumed in power.

So while agency or consciousness in a classical sense of an intimate governing of how people feel or experience themselves as subjects takes a different form, but it doesn’t go away. In ‘environmental’ programs, so posed, the agency of individuals that’s at the very center. I argue that ‘agency’ is anticipated and manipulated as the desired response to changing environmental conditions – it’s already presumed, but in the form of a controlled reaction to a well-calibrated economic environment. Agency therefore isn’t somehow outside of these programs. Rather it’s the very condition in which they can operate. Shafqat: The ethnographic details of your paper focus primarily on one source: Mr. Li. Can you please talk about sources, and how are people coping with this transition from commercial livestock raising to commercial medicinal plant farming?

Jerry: In the chapter I focus on one family, partly to focus questions of ex-herding life. I’m not making a claim about representativeness, and I don’t think that there is a generalizable experience, but I will say that the ‘choice’ to become a farmer of medicinal plants (and de facto forester) is not made simply. While forestry agencies and local government aim to create economic conditions that over-determine this choice to grow roots as the natural ‘response’ of ex-herders, there remains an ongoing capacity to respond otherwise, a response-ability, to borrow from Donna Haraway. What I will say is that ecological degradation is distributed unevenly across the landscape, and this makes a big difference in whether or not people think of government programs and grazing bans as a ‘way out’ (chulu), as the Li family explained it, or as something else. Some families continue to hold onto grazing, but see it ending in coming years under political, economic, and ecological pressure, after which they will re-evaluate, while others try to cash out early to get in at the ground floor of some of these economic programs.

What I don’t discuss in the paper is that these programs are one moment in a broader ecology of economic interventions that aim to get people off the land or to hold them there as environmental actors. So, there are ecological migration villages and other real estate investments and subsidies that the local government supports, there are attempts to encourage new markets in things like stone-collecting (there is a tradition in China of loving strange rocks) or desert tourism on desertified sands. But what these programs share is that they aim to manage human habitation and behavior in a moment of ecological and economic precarity on the land. Shafqat: At what stage of graduate work are you at right now? I guess I am asking how close are you to finishing your dissertation and what are the future plans, especially in terms of a new project?

Jerry: I’m currently finishing my dissertation, and am on track to graduate from UC Berkeley in May of this year. My future plans remain up in the air. My future projects grow out of some of the concerns in my dissertation, and especially with this haunting image of the earth in the air that I can’t shake – this is a problem that has arrested me throughout the research and writing of my dissertation. So I’ve been very interested in particulate matter, which is key problem in Chinese air quality concerns and indicate that the atmosphere has become dense. That is, it has become a problematic suspension, just as dust storms are. I’m currently thinking about what Peter Sloterdijk calls air-conditioning, the containment and management of atmospheric compositions, in relationship to a number of projects, embodiments, and problems directed toward this too-earthy air in China’s cities. I wanted to explore how particulate matter drives a series of new ways of embodying, governing, and especially air-conditioning China’s contemporary as a state of particulate exposure.

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Karl Zimmerer Interviews Stefanie Graeter, 2014 Rappaport Prize Co-Winner

Karl: The interests in your paper weave together the cultural construction, social power dynamics, and medical and environmental dimensions of lead exposure occurring in a couple of paradigmatic places (La Oroya, El Callao) in Peru’s mining industry and its transportation network. It’s clearly a highly important topic at the intersection of major anthropological issues. What kinds of influences ‑ from fieldwork or travel experiences to certain conversations or texts ‑ led to your interest in this topic and to pursue it as your dissertation? Feel free to refer to related earlier versions of your interests and research that may have helped lead to your topic here.

Stephanie: I’ve been interested by the cultural politics of contamination and exposure for quite awhile. I studied environmental science as an undergraduate, a major at UC Berkeley which is quite interdisciplinary. I took a range of courses from traditional chemistry and biology to courses in environmental justice and anthropology. As an undergraduate, I stuck to a biological track, but my course work in the social sciences sparked my interest in the cultural complexity of environmental problems, particularly as they intersected with poverty, race, and models of economic development. After college, I worked for an environmental NGO that focused on issues of environmental health and policy. I became fascinated by the process of generating social concern around a potentially toxic chemical, most of which are incredibly difficult to study scientifically, conceive of ethically, and represent politically. In graduate school, however, I turned my focus to lead contamination, a scientifically well-established toxic material that has long-since been banned from U.S. consumer goods that come in direct contact with people. Yet, the “lead-scare” of tainted toys from China in 2007 (which gender and women’s studies scholar Mel Y. Chen has written compellingly about), or the old, chipping lead paint in U.S. urban spaces, point to the toxic metal’s persistence in certain human-inhabited spaces while it is annexed from others. The apparent obviousness of lead’s toxicity actually made it more intriguing for me to study ethnographically. How does a material get established as too-toxic for humans in one region, but continues to pollute another? Lead exposure in Peru provides a particularly compelling case to think with because of the ever-growing economic importance given to mining and the mineral industry, run mostly by companies from the U.S. or Europe where lead exposure is more stringently regulated. In addition to understanding the global distribution of lead commodities and contamination, I tried to better understand the localized political processes happening in Peru that attempted to inscribe lead as toxic and to reduce exposure to it. Given its persistence in the sites I worked at, I wanted to know what social practices in Peru resist international standards of harm and what can this tell us about the ethics of transnational mineral extraction, consumption, and economic development.

Stephanie Graeter, 2014 Rappaport Prize Co-Awardee

Karl: The image analysis you undertake is very important to your paper. These powerful images show the people of La Oroya and El Callao, especially young people, in environmental and sociocultural spaces that you note can highlight their personal vulnerability, on the one hand, or a rather impersonal or less vulnerable view, on the other hand. I think the audience who is aware of your work already, and others who will be following it, may like to know what it was it like to undertake this image analysis and whether there were certain influences or inspirations for this work that might not immediately meet the eye. Personally I would find it intriguing to hear how this image analysis was integrated into your research methods. For example, did you go into the image analysis with a sharp idea of the general or specific sorts of depictions you were interested in, or was it a more multi-stage style of methodological engagement? (and, if the latter, how did it work?)

Stephanie: I didn’t go into my research with a methodological focus on images. What I wanted to understand was how lead became political (or not) through various forms of social mediation. Methodologically, I tracked the various ways that people related to and represented lead, which included a wide range of media, including scientific reports, informational brochures, policy documents, newspaper articles, blog entries, and so on. So alongside my ethnography, I built up an archive of lead documents too. The imagery of children grabbed my attention pretty early on, particularly how as subjects of vulnerability to lead their depictions diverged between my two field sites, the port of El Callao and the Andean metallurgical city of La Oroya. The images of children seemed to anchor the moral dimension of lead politics, but to different effects depending on the socio-historical context of each place. I began to pay closer attention to how these images linked up with other narratives I heard about lead contamination and its human impacts. The dense distillation of meaning present in these images then provided a helpful tool for bringing together various sources of information on lead’s impact on human social behavior in my writing.

Karl: Your paper is important and offers insights to many sub-fields of anthropology including but not limited to environment and anthropology. These other sub-fields include medical anthropology and development anthropology to name only a couple. Through the lens of your own view of environment and anthropology would you be able to comment briefly on how you see your paper fitting in. Perhaps you could comment too on how you see your study creating an intersection of environment and anthropology with these other anthropological sub-fields.

Stephanie: I situate my work at the intersection of environmental and medical anthropology, but it can be difficult to contain because it also speaks to issues of economy, development, and knowledge. At the AAAs in 2013, I actually organized a panel with my Rappaport co-awardee Jerry Zee on ethnographies of exposure. One of our goals of the panel was to use the theme of exposure as a potential bridge between the subfields of environmental and medical anthropology. Exposure orients one’s attention to the environment-body interface and especially to its permeability.

Karl: You create a very interesting and productive spatial design in your research that contributes a particular strength to the paper. It combines the very linked yet contrasting sites of La Oroya in the Andean highlands and the port city of El Callao in the Lima Metropolitan area in coastal Peru. While comparative case study design is not unusual, it requires the use of spatial knowledge and often spatial imagination, so it’d be interesting to learn more about your choice of these sites. I’d be interested too, for example, to know if you had considered other spatial designs to your research.

Stephanie: El Callao and especially La Oroya are considered as emblematic sites of lead contamination caused by mining in Peru, but there are others. For instance, located fairly close to La Oroya is the city of Cerro de Pasco, famous for its ever-expanding open-pit mine and comparably high levels of lead contamination and exposure. Originally, I hadn’t considered more than one field site but one of my interlocutors in Peru enthusiastically encouraged me to study the “route” or “corridor” of lead, from the mine to the port. I then thought about three field sites: one each for extraction, refinement, and shipment. Cerro de Pasco-La Oroya-El Callao presented an appealing circuit to undertake such a project because the sites connect spatially along Peru’s central highway and temporally through a shared history of mining development that spans the entire 20th and now 21st century. For me though, three sites became unmanageable ethnographically. While I’ve visited Cerro de Pasco, I decided to focus on El Callao and La Oroya, in part because of the contrast between the Andes and the Coast intrigued me and in part because the regions contained lesser explored sections of the metal commodity chain. This mode of ethnography nonetheless required me to spend a great deal of my time on buses and collective taxis. A lot of my spatial understanding came from moving across these spaces, watching the dramatic scenery change between the coast and the Andes and across urban and rural regions.

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2015 Anthropology and Environment Society Small Grants Program

The goal of the Anthropology and Environment Society Small Grants Program is to foster collaboration among practicing and academic anthropologists, grassroots activists, and/or organizations and inspire innovative solutions to environmental issues.  The small grants program is particularly interested in projects that facilitate communication and brainstorming between groups or that lead to program or institution building necessary to form innovative solutions. Proposals may address local, national or global concerns, issues, or problems.

The deadline for proposals is May 1, 2015. Please send proposals in the following format to Jeffrey Johnson (

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The Anthropology and Environment Society (AES) of the American Anthropological Association is pleased to announce the 2015 Rappaport Student Prize competition. To apply, interested students are invited to submit an abstract by 18 March 2015 of a paper that you plan to develop into a publication. The abstract should present a summary of the entire paper, including a statement of the problem being investigated, methods undertaken, the results of the study, the theoretical context in which it is being evaluated, and the significance of the research. The abstract should not exceed 500 words; abstracts that exceed this word limit will not be reviewed.

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A&E Panels and Events at the 2014 AAA

AE_flyerThe Anthropology & Environment Society has put together events and meetings at the 2014 American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting. Continue reading for descriptions of the different sessions by theme.

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