Friday Forum: Jerome Whitington
February 7, 2020 @ 12:00 pm - 1:30 pm
Late Industrial Environments are Constituted by Uncertainty:
Notes from Lao Hydropower
Visiting Assistant Professor
Department of Anthropology
New York University
Viewing contemporary environmental politics through the lens of crisis or destruction may lead to an overly apocalyptic understanding of our contemporary ecological predicament. A different view draws on English and American pluralist philosophies, and highlights the role of potentiality, knowledge and uncertainty at work when technologies amplify ecological relations in ways both terrifying and hopeful. This view places technology and ecology on the same side of the equation, rather than positioning them as opposites, and emphasizes the role of uncertain knowledge in the emergence of anthropogenic ecologies. In this talk I elaborate on late industrial capitalist ecologies from the vantage point of sustainable hydropower development in Laos. Because industrial technologies produce emergent relations it may be useful to say that late industrial environments are constituted by uncertainty. I draw on Susan Harding’s term underdetermination to argue that uncertainty is a subjectifying and productive force whereby people conform themselves to emergent ecological relations through the interplay of threat and opportunity. This leads to surprising results in understanding the relation between culture and ecology, without implying that people are either rational-objective observers or sociobiological automatons. While contributing to a political understanding of current ecological dilemmas, this view does not, however, obviate or solve them.