Press Release: Julian Steward Prize

Univ. of Michigan anthropologist Erik Mueggler awarded Julian Steward Prize 

The Anthropology & Environment Society has awarded its Julian Steward Prize to Erik Mueggler for his 2011 book The Paper Road: Archive and Experience in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet (Univ. of California Press). Erik Mueggler is professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan.

The Julian Steward Prize is given only every second year to the most outstanding book in the arena of environmental anthropology.  The Anthropology & Environment Society is a major section of the American Anthropological Association.  The announcement was made in December at the annual convention by president Glenn Davis Stone.

The Prize committee commended Prof. Mueggler for his lyrical account of the journeys of two early twentieth-century botanists who explored the borderlands between China, Tibet and Burma, and their collaborative relationships with Yunnan villagers.   The book presents colonial science as an intimate, personal affair, and shows the effects of local knowledge.  The text beautifully infuses biography, ethnography, botany and geography with captivating tales of daring adventure.

For further information, contact Glenn Stone at


Anthropology & Environment Society

Prof. Erik Mueggler’s website



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Press Release: Junior Scholar Prize for 2013

Press Release: Oregon State Univ. anthropologist Drew Gerkey awarded Junior Scholar Prize for 2013

The Anthropology & Environment Society has awarded its Junior Scholar Prize to Dr. Drew Gerkey, who recently joined the Department of Anthropology at Oregon State University.  The AES Junior Scholar prize is given annually to an early-career scholar for an exemplary article in the area of environmental anthropology.

Dr, Gerkey won for his 2013 article “Cooperation in Context: Public Goods Games and Post-Soviet Collectives in Kamchatka, Russia” which appeared in Current Anthropology 54(2):144-176.

This innovative article combines ethnographic research with economic experiments to investigate cooperation among salmon fishers and reindeer herders on the Kamchatka Peninsula.  His research uncovered connections between the abstract structure of economic games and naturally occurring contexts of cooperation in Kamchatka, illustrating how cultural norms, values, and institutions shape expectations and frame strategies for solving dilemmas inherent in cooperation.

Dr. Gerkey shared the 2013 Junior Scholar prize with Dr. Jessica Barnes of University of South Carolina.

The Anthropology & Environment Society is a major section of the American Anthropological Association.  The announcement was made at the annual convention by president Glenn Stone (Washington Univ.).

For further information, contact Glenn Stone at

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Press Release: Junior Scholar Prize for 2013

Press Release: Univ. of South Carolina professor Jessica Barnes awarded Junior Scholar Prize for 2013

The Anthropology & Environment Society has awarded its Junior Scholar Prize to Dr. Jessica Barnes, Assistant Professor in USC’s Department of Geography.  The AES Junior Scholar prize is given annually to an early-career scholar for an exemplary article in the area of environmental anthropology.

Dr. Barnes won for her 2013 article “Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink: The false promise of virtual water,” which appeared in Critique of Anthropology 33(4) 371–389.  This article provides an insightful and timely examination of the concept of virtual water, which now plays an important role in as a tradable commodity in environmental management, and explores how key agro-environmental functions of water are being ignored.

Dr. Barnes shared the 2013 Junior Scholar prize with Dr. Drew Gerkey of Oregon State University.

The Anthropology & Environment Society is a major section of the American Anthropological Association.  The announcement was made at the annual convention by president Glenn Stone (Washington Univ.).

For further information, contact Glenn Stone at

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Engagement in the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor

By Felipe Montoya-Greenheck

Sometimes engagement in the field grabs you when you are busy grading papers at your desk, and then it doesn’t let go, or rather, because of the urgency of the matter, one cannot let go. My recent post as director of the Las Nubes Project at the Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University, put me in charge of a research, education, and community action program centered in the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor in southern Costa Rica. In 1998 a tract of rainforest, the Las Nubes Forest Reserve, bordering the Chirripó National Park was donated to York. While emailing and Facebooking with community members, researchers in Costa Rica, and my own Master’s students to plan participatory research projects in the corridor, communications began to pile up confirming the dreaded news that ten new hydroelectric dams were being planned for the watersheds on the Pacific side of the Chirripó mountain, two of which were located on the river that runs through the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor.

Las Nubes Forest Reserve in the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor

Las Nubes Forest Reserve in the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor

In 1998 the Las Nubes Forest Reserve, a tract of rainforest bordering the Chirripó National Park, was donated to York. In 2004, Las Nubes became part of the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor, a collective initiative involving, among others, local communities, NGOs, and universities, including York. Since then, the Las Nubes project has sponsored over 25 Master’s and PhD research projects in and around the corridor, has taken hundreds of students there on summer field courses, and has worked alongside community members to advance initiatives to improve local livelihoods and environmental conservation. Las Nubes Coffee grown in the region is sold in Canada and part of the proceeds are used to fund Las Nubes projects. With its more than 300 bird species, we are working on a bird guide to promote the corridor as a must-go destination for birders. We are also in the midst of planning the construction of a research, education and community engagement center near Las Nubes that will serve as a local, national and international hub for activities around Neotropical conservation and livelihood improvement.

Students from summer field course in Las Nubes

Students from summer field course in Las Nubes

A few months ago, while in the field presenting some results from an ongoing research project on mammal monitoring, where we showed pictures of pumas, ocelots, coyotes, anteaters, wild pigs, and other animals that were caught on film during their mostly nocturnal amblings through the corridor, there were some mumblings about hydroelectric plants being planned for the rivers of the corridor. With the exuberant response from the community regarding the mammals that few realized were living among them, these rumors of dams were drowned out.

Puma captured with camera traps

Puma captured with camera traps

Starting in late August, however, what began as a trickle has become a flood of emails reaching my desktop computer, documenting how private enterprise is rushing forward with plans to build 10 hydroelectric dams, affecting each and every one of the rivers that runs from the highest peak of Central America down to the Pacific Ocean. These plans are endangering the last remnant of Evergreen Seasonal Tropical Rainforest in the country, threatening the survival of a number of endangered species, including the neotropical river otter, and destroying the ecological connectivity local communities have worked so hard to recover and maintain.

Ironically, community engagement, instead of thrusting me into the field, has suddenly kept me at my desk at my university: doing bibliographic research into the possible impacts of hydroelectric dams on river ecology and surrounding ecosystems; encouraging graduate students to take up research projects that will explore appropriate energy generating technologies as alternatives to hydroelectric plants, sample and describe the aquatic species in these rivers, or document environmental services rendered to local economies by the ecologic connectivity of the corridor; seeking the advice of academic colleagues who are specialists in resource management, hydrology, and environmental law; and writing to municipal governments and state ministries, as well corresponding with local activists.

In other moments and circumstances, engagement took on a more ethnographic expression, based on participant observation, collecting life histories, carrying out surveys, holding workshops, organizing festivals, and even giving back to communities information from my research in the shape of fictional (but truth-based) puppet shows, comic book stories, and video animations.

First Alexander Skutch Festival (2013)

First Alexander Skutch Festival (2013)

So, engagement, more than a specific activity, I have found, is an attitude. It has to do with working together with people dialogically, like in a conversation, creating something greater than the sum of the individual parts. Circumstance will dictate the best means of engagement. Sometimes it requires walking and talking, or sharing seeds and making food. Other times it may require organizing workshops or celebrating festivals, collecting or telling stories. Often it involves holding hands and working shoulder to shoulder. But one thing it always demands is listening. Listening to local concerns helped me establish the requirements for the research, education, and community engagement center we are in the midst of constructing. Listening also moved us to create the bird guide to market the corridor as a birder’s destination, and listening is what now moves me to mobilize against the destruction of the rivers in the region of Las Nubes.

Community members of the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor increasingly express their opposition to the privatization of the water, to the destruction of their rivers, to compromising their options for community-based tourism as a complementary source of income. They express their understanding that water is vital for life, and their perspectives that consider the rights of Nature as something worth defending and fighting for. They demand to be consulted regarding infrastructure projects in their communities, and they seek to have a say over their territories, their livelihoods, and their destinies. These expressions that come from small farming communities that have been marginalized socially, economically, politically, and now environmentally, are what currently engage me in the field of environmental anthropology. Their concerns and yearnings are those of common people from around the world.

Engagement in one small region of Costa Rica is less limited or restricted than it might seem at first glance. Successful struggles here may easily translate into victories elsewhere in the world. Strategies that allow these local communities to protect their fragile environment, and that permit them to maintain their autonomy, sustainability and equity, may provide road maps or guidance for similar struggles elsewhere. Engagement in these critical times is all the more rewarding because the stakes are so high. I cannot conceive of any alternative other than being engaged. So, I don’t fret that my boots are not on the ground, as long as sitting at my desk in front of my computer involves acts of engagement.

Felipe is a Costa Rican environmental anthropologist, currently serving as Chair in Neotropical Conservation at the Faculty of Environmental Studies in York University, Toronto, Canada.

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Up the Financier: Studying the California Carbon Market

ENGAGEMENT co-editor Chris Hebdon catches up with University of Kentucky geographer Patrick Bigger.

Patrick Bigger at the Chicago Board of Trade

Patrick Bigger at the Chicago Board of Trade


How would you explain your dissertation research on the California carbon market?

At the broadest level, my research is about understanding how a brand new commodity market tied to environmental improvement is brought into the world, and then how it functions once it is in existence. Taking as a starting point Polanyi’s (1944) observation that markets are inherently social institutions, my work sorts though the social, geographical, and ideological relationships that are being mobilized in California and brought from across the world to build the world’s second largest carbon market. And those constitutive processes and practices are no small undertaking.

Making a multi-billion dollar market from scratch is a process that entails the recruitment and hiring of a small army of bureaucrats and lawyers, the creation of new trading and technology firms, the involvement of offset developers and exchange operators who had been active in other environmental commodities markets, and learning from more than fifty years of environmental economics and the intellectual work of think tanks and NGOs. There are literally tens of thousands of hours of people’s time embodied in the rule-making process, which result in texts (in the form of regulatory documents) that profoundly influence how California’s economy is performed every day. These performances range from rice farmers considering how much acreage to sow in the Sacramento Delta to former Enron power traders building new trading strategies based on intertemporal price differences of carbon futures for different compliance periods in California’s carbon market.

My work uses ethnographic methods such as participant-observation in public rule-making workshops and semi-structured interviews with regulators, industry groups, polluters, NGOs, and academics to try to recreate the key socio-geographical relationships that have had the most impact on market design and function. It’s about how regulatory and financial performances are intertwined, as events in the market (and in other financial markets, most notably the deregulated electric power market in California) are brought back to bear on rule-making, and then how rule-making impacts how the market and the associated regulated industrial processes are enacted. And the key thing is that there isn’t some isolated cabal of carbon’s ‘masters of the universe’ pulling the strings––it’s bureaucrats in cubicles, academics writing books, and offset developers planting trees out there making a market. And they’re people you can go observe and talk with.

Who are buying and selling these carbon credits?

That’s a trickier question than it seems. Most of the credits (aka allowances) are effectively created out of thin air by the California Air Resources board which then distributes them via either free allocation or by auction to anyone who requests authorization to bid. A significant proportion of those are given away directly to regulated industries to ease their transition to paying for their carbon output. Another way the auction works is that electric utilities are given almost all the credits they need to fulfill their obligation, but they are required to sell (consign) those permits in the auction, while they are typically also buyers. This is to prevent windfall profits, like what happened in the EU, for the electric utilities. The utilities must return the value of what they make selling their permits at auction to ratepayers, which they have done to the tune of $1.5 billion so far.

More to the spirit of the question though, it’s a pretty big world. Literally anyone can buy California Carbon on the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), based in Chicago. From what I’ve been told, a lot of allowances pass through Houston because there is a major agglomeration of energy traders there, and carbon is often bundled into transactions like power purchase agreements that are traded over-the-counter (OTC). There’s an interesting division in who buys their credits where––companies that must comply with climate regulations tend to buy through the auction, while people trading for presumably speculative purposes tend to buy on the exchange. This isn’t even getting into who produces, sells, and buys carbon offsets, which is another market entirely unto itself. To attempt to be succinct, I’d say there is a ‘carbon industry’ in the same sense that Leigh Johnson (2010) talks about a ‘risk industry’; a constellation of brokers, lawyers, traders, insurers, and industrial concerns, and the size of these institutional actors range from highly specialized carbon traders to the commodities desk at transnational investment banks.

Would you be able to outline some ways your research could affect public policy? And how is it in dialogue with environmental justice literature and engaged scholarship?

There are a number of ways that my work could be taken up by policy makers, though to be clear I did not set out to write a dissertation that would become a how-to-build-a-carbon-market manual. Just being around regulators and market interlocutors has provided insights into the most challenging aspects to market creation and maintenance, like what sorts of expertise a bureaucracy needs, how regulators can encourage public participation in seemingly esoteric matters, or the order which regulator decisions need to be made. Beyond the nuts-and-bolts, there’s a fairly substantial literature on ‘fast policy transfer’ in geography that critiques the ways certain kinds of policy become wildly popular and are then plopped down anywhere regardless of geographical and political-economic context; I am interested in contributing to that literature because California’s carbon market was specifically designed to ‘travel’ through linkages with other sub-national carbon markets. I would also note that there are aspects of what I’m thinking about that problematize the entire concept of the marketization of nature in ways that would also be applicable to the broader ecosystem service literature and the NGOs and regulators who are trying to push back against that paradigm.

As far as the EJ literature is concerned, I’ll admit to having a somewhat fraught relationship. I set out to do a project on the economic geography of environmental finance, not to explicitly document the kinds injustices that environmental finance has, or has the potential, to produce. As a result some critics have accused me of being insufficiently justice-y. I’d respond by noting that my work is normative, even if it isn’t framed in the language of environmental justice; it certainly isn’t Kuhnian normal science. But EJ arguments, if they are any good, do depend on empirical grounding and I would hope that my work provides that.

At the Chicago Board of Trade.

“I’d be really happy if scholars of other markets could find parallels to my work that demonstrated that all markets, not just environmental ones, were as much about the state as they are about finance.”


Your advisor Morgan Robertson has written about “oppositional research,” and research “behind enemy lines,” drawing on his experience working inside the Environmental Protection Agency. What has oppositional research meant for you?

I think about it as using ethnographic methods to poke and prod at the logics and practices that go into building a carbon market. I think for Morgan it was more about the specific problems and opportunities of being fully embedded in an institution whose policies you want to challenge. That position of being fully ‘inside’ isn’t where I’m at right now, and it’s a difficult position to get into either because you just don’t have access, because the researcher doesn’t want to or isn’t comfortable becoming a full-fledged insider, or because academics often just don’t have time to do that sort research. It’s also contingent on what sort of conversational ethnographic tact you want to take––when you’re fully embedded you lose the option of performing the research space as a neophyte, which can be a very productive strategy. One thing that I will mention is that oppositional research is based on trust. You must have established some rapport with your research participants before you challenge them head-on, or they may just walk away and then you’ve done nothing to challenge their practices or world view, you’ve potentially sewn ill will with future research participants, and you won’t get any of the interesting information that you might have otherwise.

How about the method of “studying up”?

For starters, the logistics of ‘studying up’ (Nader 1969) are substantially different than other kinds of fieldwork. There’s lots of downtime (unless you’re in a situation where you’ve got 100% access to whatever you’re studying, e.g.  having a job as a banker or regulator) because there aren’t hearings or rule-making workshops everyday, or even every week, and the people making the market are busy white-collar people with schedules. I feel like I’ve had a really productive week if I can get 3 interviews done.

Beyond the logistics, one of the most challenging parts of studying a regulatory or financial process you’re not fully onboard with is walking the line between asking tough questions of your research participants and yet not alienating them. It has been easy for me to go in the other direction as well––even though I think carbon markets are deeply problematic and emblematic of really pernicious global trends toward the marketization of everything, I really like most of my research participants. They’re giving me their time, they tell me fascinating stories, and they’ve really bent over backward to help me connect with other people or institutions it never would have occurred to me to investigate. And that can make it tough to want to challenge them during interviews. After a while, it’s also possible to start feeling you’re on the inside of the process, at least as far as sharing a language and being part of a very small community. There aren’t many people in the world that I can have a coffee with and make jokes about one company’s consistently bizarre font choices in public comments documents. So even though the market feels almost overwhelmingly big in one sense, it’s also very intimate in another. I’m still working out how to write a trenchant political-economic critique with a much more sympathetic account of regulatory/market performance. Even many guys in the oil-refining sector are deeply concerned about climate change.

Would you ever take a job in a carbon trading firm?

Absolutely. There’s a rich literature developing that gets into the nuts and bolts of many aspects of finance, including carbon trading in the social studies of finance/cultural economics that overlaps with scholarship in critical accounting and even work coming out of some business schools. Some of those folks, like Ekaterina Svetlova (see especially 2012), have worked or done extended participant observation in the financial institutions that are being unpacked in broader literatures around performative economics and have provided useful critiques or correctives that is helping this literature to mature.

However, much of this work is subject to the same pitfalls as other work in the social studies of finance, especially the sense that scholars ‘fall in love’ with the complexity of their research topic and the ingenuity of their research participants qua coworkers and ultimately fail to link them back to meaningful critiques of the broader world. All that said, I’m not sure I’ve got the chops to work in finance. I’d be more interested in, and comfortable with, working in the environmental and economic governance realm where I could see, on a daily basis, how the logics of traders meet the logics of regulation and science.

What advice would you give to scholars who may do research on carbon markets in the future?

Get familiar with the language and logics of neoclassical economics. Really familiar. Take some classes. If you’re studying neoliberal environmental policy, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that regulation is shot through with the logics of market triumphalism at a level that just reading David Harvey (2003, 2005) probably wouldn’t prepare you for. A little engineering, or at least familiarity with engineers, wouldn’t be amiss either.

On a really pragmatic level, if you can get access, get familiar with being in an office setting if you haven’t spent much time in one. Being in a new kind of space can be really stressful and if you’re not comfortable in your surroundings you might not be getting the most out of your interviews.

If you’re studying a carbon market specifically, take the time to understand how the electricity grid works. I lost a lot of time sitting through workshops that were well over my head dealing with how the electric power industry would count its carbon emissions. I would have gotten much more out of them if I’d had even a cursory understanding of how the electricity gets from the out-of-state coal-fired power plant to my toaster.

Don’t expect to just pop in-and-out of fieldwork. Make yourself at home. Take some time to figure out what the points of tension are. That’s not to say you must do an ‘E’thnography, but taking the time at the beginning to understand the playing field will make it easier to understand the maneuvering later.

Read the specialist and general press every single day. Set up some news aggregator service to whatever market or regulation you’re looking at. It’s what your participants will be reading, and if they aren’t then you’ll really look like you know what you’re doing.

What are broad implications of your research?

I think starting to come to grips on the creation, from nothing, of a commodity market worth more than a billion dollars could have all sorts of impacts I can’t even imagine. I’d be really happy if scholars of other markets could find parallels to my work that demonstrated that all markets, not just environmental ones, were as much about the state as they are about finance, and not just in the way that Polanyi wrote about them. I’d also like to help people think through the relationship between the economic structures that people build, and then how they inhabit them through economic ideology, the performance of that ideology and their modern representation, the economic model. In some ways this is reopening the structure-agency debates that have been simmering for a long time. I also want to provide more grist for the mill in terms of unpacking variegated neoliberalisms––there are quite a few examples I’ve run across in my work where discourses about the efficiencies of markets run up against either the realpolitik of institutional inertia or perceived risks to the broader economy (which can be read as social reproduction).

In terms of policy, I hope that regulatory readers of my work will think about the relative return on investment (if I can appropriate a financial concept) in deploying market-based environmental policy as opposed to direct regulation, particularly around climate change. We’re in a situation that demands urgency to curb the worst impacts of carbon pollution, so it is of the utmost importance that the state take dramatic action, and soon. That said, wouldn’t it be interesting if this carbon market ended up accomplishing its goals? If it does, then I hope my work would take on different kinds of significance.

* * *

Harvey, David. 2003. The New Imperialism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Harvey, David. 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Johnson, Leigh. 2010. Climate Change and the Risk Industry: The Multiplication of Fear and Value. Richard Peet, Paul Robbins and Michael Watts, eds. Global Political Ecology. London: Routledge.

Nader, Laura. 1969. Up the Anthropologist: Perspectives Gained from Studying Up. Dell Hymes, ed. Reinventing Anthropology. New York: Random House.

Polanyi, Karl. 1944. The Great Transformation. Boston: Beacon.

Svetlova, Ekaterina. 2012. On the Performative Power of Financial Models. Economy and Society 41(3): 418-434.



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Preservation’s Loss: The Statutory Construction of Forests in Cook County, IL

By Natalie Bump Vena

Why did the State of Illinois establish a Forest Preserve District in northeastern Illinois, where forests made up a small fraction of the landscape? And what were the ecological consequences of doing so? With jurisdiction in the county that encompasses Chicago, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, IL today manages 69,000 acres of protected land, mostly located in the city’s suburbs. At the turn of the twentieth century, civic and political leaders dreamed of establishing this system of open land as a natural retreat for Chicagoans who could not otherwise afford to leave the teeming metropolis. To begin realizing that vision, Chicago’s City Council hired Architect Dwight Perkins to compile a report for an enlarged park system in 1903. Perkins in turn asked Landscape Architect Jens Jensen to recommend land to include in what they called an “outer belt park.” They published the report in 1904.

During archival research, I became interested in how and why Jensen and Perkins’ inclusive vision for an outer belt park composed of wetlands, prairies, and forests became, by 1916, a Forest Preserve District with the purpose of acquiring and protecting natural forests. That evolution was even more puzzling to me, because Perkins and Jensen both had strong ties to Chicago’s Prairie School of Architecture made famous by Frank Lloyd Wright. While Jensen described all of Cook County’s landscapes in the 1904 report, he made clear the prairie’s ubiquity, writing: “The predominating character of the landscape around Chicago is that of prairie” (83). Through a combination of legal research and examination of administrative documents from the early twentieth century, I gradually realized that preservation in Cook County complicates understandings of U.S. conservation law. Indeed, the case exemplifies how legal preservation may save some landscapes, while degrading others.

Forest Preserve District of Cook County map, ca. late 1940s, early 1950s

After Perkins and Jensen published their report, civic leaders and politicians began the legal and political work necessary to create an outer belt park for Chicago. Between 1904 and 1913, the Illinois State legislature passed three different Forest Preserve Acts. Illinois’s governor did not sign the Act of 1905 into law and the Illinois Supreme Court found the Act of 1909 unconstitutional. The Cook County Board of Commissioners finally organized the District in 1916, based on the Act of 1913. By studying documents produced during that protracted process, I found that the politicians and civic leaders organizing to create an outer belt park narrowed their efforts to protect woodlands, as a legal strategy to achieve the greater goal of providing Chicago’s public with more open space.

Although the Act of 1905 ultimately failed, it left an imprint on subsequent legislation by introducing the term “forest preserve” to describe the proposed district. The Act of 1905’s drafters likely named the bill for forest preservation, in order to avoid charges of double taxation (Hayes 1949: 10). Chicago already had a number of park commissions, each one responsible for a different region in the city. Based on contextual research regarding contemporary landscape architecture in Chicago and on the East Coast, I believe that the drafters invoked forests in the legislation’s title to appeal to popular conceptions of nature in America at the turn of the twentieth century. The Act of 1909’s drafters kept the forest idea in name, but not in purpose. Although called “An act to provide for the creation and management of forest preserve districts,” the Act of 1909 had the broad aim of preserving local species and “scenic beauties” (Laws of the State of Illinois 1909: Section 13). In December 1911, the Illinois Supreme Court struck down the law on equal protection grounds in People v. Rinaker.

Forest Preserve District official on prairie land, ca. late 1930s – 1940s

In non-binding language, the Rinaker court also criticized the drafters for composing an enabling statute for a special purpose district named to preserve forests, but that embraced other subjects and failed to articulate forest protection as the law’s central purpose. As the baffled court pointed out, one could even interpret the legislation as authorizing the board to protect prairies. They stated,  “a reading of the statute leaves it open to grave doubt whether it does not authorize organizing a district in the prairie, without any forest whatever in it” (People ex rel. Koch v. Rinaker et al, 252 Ill. 275 [1911]).

In response to the Rinaker court, the Act of 1913’s drafters made clear that the Forest Preserve District’s purpose was to acquire and to protect “natural forests.” While the Act of 1909 gave the District board the authority to “hold lands for the purpose of protecting and preserving the flora and fauna and scenic beauties of the State,” the Act of 1913 stated the board could “hold lands containing one or more natural forests or parts thereof, for the purpose of protecting and preserving the flora and fauna and scenic beauties within such district [emphasis mine]” (Laws of the State of Illinois 1913: Section 5). The Illinois State Legislature passed the bill, and the governor signed it into law in June 1913.

Planting trees in the forest preserves, ca. 1930s.

While examining the early Official Proceedings of the Forest Preserve District Board of Commissioners, I learned the extent to which the commissioners prioritized the acquisition of woodlands when they began purchasing land in 1916. However, due to the relative scarcity of forests in Cook County, the commissioners also had to acquire farmland, prairies, and wetlands to build the District’s holdings.

In order to resolve the increasing discrepancy between the characteristics of the property and the name and statutory purpose of the District, the commissioners increasingly turned to forestation. District leaders even described the large-scale tree planting as “reforestation,” thus creating the illusion that they were establishing something that had previously existed on the land (e.g., Reinberg 1920: 13). To protect the newly planted trees, the District also adopted a policy of fire prevention, which contributed to the near disappearance of the fire-dependent prairie ecosystem. In carrying out their land management policies, the District depended on the Civilian Conservation Corps and other Depression-era work relief labor to manually transform large swaths of the District into forests. During post-war suburbanization, the District scrambled to acquire more land at the edges of Cook County, much of which had been plowed for corn and soybeans. Without the abundant manual labor available during the 1930s, the District used mechanized tools that enabled them to plant forests quickly and with fewer people. Major forestation and fire prevention efforts continued through the 1970s.

Just as Dwight Perkins and Jens Jensen’s inclusive vision for an outer park belt got lost in the legal battle to found the District, Cook County’s prairies nearly disappeared during the twentieth century as District staff constructed a forest landscape to match the enabling statute’s name and language. Throughout my archival research, interviews with District staff, and fieldwork alongside interlocutors restoring prairies, I sensed the deep loss attendant to the District’s twentieth century land management policies. For instance, I read an account written in 1940 by an ecologist from the University of Wisconsin, who observed that the District had planted tree seedlings on remnant prairies in several northern Cook County forest preserves (Sperry 1940). And during an interview, a retired forest preserve naturalist recalled visiting a prairie in southern Cook County during the 1950s, where he and his troop of boy scouts found species like compass plant, prairie dock, and smooth green snakes. He remembered that soon after, “The Forest Preserve District, in its infinite wisdom, planted trees. Now there are no green snakes there.” I asked him why he thought the District wanted to change that prairie, and he intuitively said, “Because it’s called a ‘forest preserve.’”

Fighting fires in the forest preserves, ca. 1930s.

In their efforts to create more open land for Cook County’s public, the District’s founders made legal compromises that produced an agency named for woodlands with a statutory purpose reflecting its namesake. The District’s leaders subsequently cited that law as guiding their forestation policy, which entailed planting thousands of trees on prairie remnants as well as prairies that had been plowed. The case of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County demonstrates, then, how the legal and administrative process of protecting lands may cause one landscape to be found, while another is lost.

Natalie Bump Vena is a Ph.D./J.D. candidate in Northwestern University’s Department of Anthropology and School of Law. She grew up on the south side of Chicago, and visited the Cook County forest preserves every weekend with her father. In her dissertation, she examines why the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, IL has repeatedly transformed the land that it is mandated to preserve over the past 100 years. 

Photography credits: “Cook County Forest Preserve Photographs” (Richard J. Daley Special Collections; University Archives, University of Illinois at Chicago)


Hayes, William P. 1949. Development of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois. M.A. Thesis, Department of History, DePaul University.

Jensen, Jens. 1904. “Report of the Landscape Architect.” In Report of the Special Park Commission to the City Council of Chicago. Chicago: Hartman Company Printers.

Laws of the State of Illinois Enacted by the Forty-Fourth General Assembly. 1909. Forestry, Forest Preserve Districts. Springfield: Illinois State Journal Co.

Laws of the State of Illinois Enacted by the Forty-Eighth General Assembly. 1913. Forestry, Forest Preserve Districts. Springfield: Illinois State Journal Co.

Reinberg, Peter. 1920. Fourth Annual Message of Peter Reinberg, President, Board of Forest Preserve Commissioners of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, State of Illinois. Chicago History Museum Research Center, Chicago, IL.

Sperry, Theodore M. 1940. “Report on Proposed Prairie Restoration for Forest Preserve District of Cook County.” Forest Preserve District of Cook County Records, University of Illinois at Chicago Special Collections and University Archives, Chicago, IL.



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An Anthropology of the Uncontainable

By Robin Nagle

I recently published an ethnography called Picking Up. It’s based on a decade of research with New York City’s Department of Sanitation and it tries to answer a simple question: what’s it like to be a sanitation worker and why should anyone care?

The second part of the question was easy. If we want to recalibrate the way we live on the planet so that both we and the planet might survive, we must understand all the costs of our consumption and discard habits. One of those costs is the labor, formal and informal, that discards always require. I was specifically interested in how such labors were organized around municipal solid waste in my hometown. Sanitation workers have the most important job on city streets, and I was a little incredulous that no one had given them any serious anthropological attention.

I sent a proposal to the DSNY outlining a straightforward participant-observation study to answer the first part of my question. After two years of asking, I was eventually allowed to visit Sanitation garages, walk the routes with the workers, work side-by-side with them, and interview DSNY people in various ranks and titles around the city. It was a rewarding stint of fieldwork, but soon I realized that it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t learn what I needed to know unless I were actually a worker myself. After 15 months of tests, medical clearances, and thickets of paperwork, I was hired into the Department’s uniformed ranks. When people find out that for a little while I was a truck driving, garbage flinging, mechanical broom operating, snow plowing sanitation worker for the City of New York, they are often amazed, but their reaction puzzles me. How else would an anthropologist learn the perspective of a culture not entirely her own?

I’m no longer on the job as a sanitation worker. Now I have a different title. Since 2006, I’ve been the DSNY’s anthropologist-in-residence. It also raises eyebrows (even though I’m careful to make clear that it’s an unsalaried position), but to me it’s just logical. The world of garbage is a fascinating subject for cultural anthropology.

It’s also perpetually challenging. Just as the material stuff of trash is always breaching its containments, so research on trash is always leaking out of whatever boundaries are imposed on it. Cultural anthropologists investigating solid waste will find themselves facing a host of sometimes overlapping, sometimes contradictory considerations about environmental integrity, labor advocacy, public health, urban planning, infrastructure history, political intrigue, and economic brinksmanship (among many other variables). Garbage is endless; once the questions start, they, too, are endless – and endlessly satisfying to explore.

New York Times Book Review

New York Times Book Review of “Picking Up.”

Robin Nagle at TED City 2.0

Robin Nagle at TED City 2.0


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A&E Panels and Events at the 2013 AAA


The Anthropology & Environment Society has put together a PDF of events and meetings at the 2013 American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting. Read the attached PDF or  continuing reading for descriptions of the different sessions by theme.

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Leslie Sponsel on Spiritual Ecology, Connection, and Environmental Change

ENGAGEMENT editors recently connected with Leslie Sponsel, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Hawai’i, to talk about his recent book, Spiritual Ecology: A Quiet Revolution (2012, Praeger), and its broader contributions to environmental movements and policy decisions around the world. This interview is the latest in an ENGAGEMENT series that explores how environmental-anthropological book projects have profound and important impacts on the world around us.

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Designing Sacred Lands

By Steve Lansing

After four unsuccessful attempts, in June 2012 UNESCO approved a new World Heritage Cultural Landscape: the subaks and water temples of Bali. An innovative management plan empowers the elected heads of subaks and villages to manage the World Heritage as a Governing Assembly, with assistance from government departments.  Implementation of this management system has been delayed, but it has been endorsed by UNESCO as a promising model for democratic adaptive management.

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