NYAS @ WGF: The Energy and Climate Change Panel

After a winter-weather cancellation last month, the NYAS Anthropology Section triumphantly returns to Wenner-Gren for the next installment of this year’s lecture series this coming Monday, February 23rd, from 7-9 PM at the Foundation’s Park Avenue South offices. The Foundation and the Academy welcome David Hughes, Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey and author of Whiteness in Zimbabwe; Gökçe Günel, ACLS Teaching Fellow and Lecturer in Anthropology at Columbia University; and Stephanie Rupp, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Lehman College, CUNY, to share their ideas regarding the intersections of anthropology and climate change.

A reception will precede the meeting at 6:00 pm. Please do not contact the Wenner-Gren Foundation with inquiries regarding registration.

 

David Hughes (Rutgers University)

How solar became “alternative”: slavery and the making of energy flows

Willem Blaeu's map of northwestern South America, 1635.

Experts who describe solar energy as an “alternative” – that contributes only a small fraction to our oil-driven economy – are measuring the wrong thing.   Every day, the sun gives us 20,000 times the wattage we consume in oil, gas, coal, and nuclear power.  Bizarrely, the entire conventional calculus of energy omits the overwhelming bulk of it, the elephant in a small room.  This paper examines an instance of such forgetting: the transition from solar energy to something like oil in the Orinoco Basin of colonial South America.  In the 1740s, the Jesuit missionary and geographer, Josef Gumilla marveled in the God-given fertility of the tropics. Solar rays and Spanish settlers, he hoped, would turn the Orinoco into a breadbasket for cacao.  Forty years later, the governor of Trinidad, Josef María Chacón proposed a second plan for colonization. On this island of the Orinoco delta, he identified tropical fertility with disease and overly dense vegetation.  Instead of solar rays, Chacón’s promotion of sugar required enslaved Africans, and lots of them.  The governor calculated employment rates per land area, death rates, and replacement rates through imports.  In so doing, he helped create the modern, narrow concept of energy: a transportable, storable commodity unrelated to either the landscape or to God.  One could almost squeeze exploited labor into barrels and sell it by the gallon.  When geologists discovered oil – on Trinidad, in fact, in 1859 – the energy experts were ready for it.  In cultural terms, slaves served as the bridge fuel from solar energy to petroleum.  Remembering this history adds a span to the bridge back in the other direction.

 

Masdar City under construction, 2012. Photo courtesy Jan Seifert via Wikimedia Commons

Gökçe Günel (Columbia University)

Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change and Green Business in Abu Dhabi

At the face of growing concerns regarding climate change and energy scarcity, investors and governments started promoting smart and eco friendly urban developments as sites of value production and potential salvation from a seemingly apocalyptic future. As part of this trend, cities built from scratch offer a vision of technologically complex, eco-friendly, and enjoyable modes of living, and serve as engines for economic growth. In exploring this trend more closely, this talk centers on oil-rich Abu Dhabi’s eco-city project, Masdar City. Drawing on seventeen months of multi-sited fieldwork at Masdar, as well as at MIT and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bonn, this talk demonstrates that the Masdar City project attempts to generate “an economy of technical adjustments,” a means for vaulting over to a future where humans will continue to enjoy technological complexity, without interrogating existing social, political and economic relations. Invested in an image of the future drawn from science fiction, the economy of technical adjustments serves as a method for concentrating on modifications that bring forth promissory capital, enabling a multiplicity of actions and nonactions to be taken in the face of global environmental collapse. Yet this talk demonstrates that professionals at Masdar not only advocated such market-oriented technological solutions for climate change, but also consistently crafted justifications for their projects in light of the various contradictions that they saw exist in such a perspective. Analyzing the metaphor of “spaceship in the desert,” which the producers of Masdar City popularized, it inquires into the forms of temporality and spatiality the eco-city engendered. In this way, the talk seeks to draw attention to the alternative futures rendered invisible by the dominant drive for an economy of technical adjustments.

 

Stephanie Rupp (Lehman College, CUNY)

Blackouts: Illuminating Structures of Power in New York City

power station on Staten Island, 1970s

Energy provides the underlying power of New York City.  Energy runs throughout our city, mediating our work through electricity and technology; connecting us socially to neighbors and networks; sustaining our lives in every more intricate, invisible, and seemingly inevitable ways. Thomas Edison designed the municipal electrical grid in New York City to ensure that urban consumers of electricity would come to consider its flow to be inexpensive and indispensable as the primary force of individual power in society.  Edison’s vision of inexpensive, irresistible energy fueling urban society has been realized to an extent that might have surprised even him.  It is in the context of the absence of energy and the disruption of infrastructure—during blackouts, for example—that lines of social, economic, and political inequality become suddenly visible.  This paper proposes that notions of energy as a physical force, as technological innovation, as political control, as social agency, and as cultural metaphor are intertwined.  Energy is a social, economic, and political issue, as much (or more) as it is a technological issue.  This project illuminates that it is in the darkness of blackouts that these otherwise invisible and ignored structures of power are abruptly made visible. And it is in the blacked-out context of a massive rupture that sedimented relations of agency, structure, and power rise to the surface of individual, public, and institutional awareness, giving us a chance to reconsider and even renegotiate our attitudes towards energy, towards infrastructures that are technical, economic, and social, and towards underlying structures of inequality.

Leave a Reply