Economentality: Tim Mitchell on how the future entered government

Last fall I mentioned an interesting talk that Tim Mitchell gave on how, post-WWII, the “economy” became an object in its own right. I see that a version of that talk is now up on line from a talk this past spring.

Also, Mitchell’s book, Carbon Democracy, is now out in paperback.


Nature for Sale or Arendt

Some interesting thoughts and comments on Arendt, ecology, ecocide.

The Learning Planet

IMGP3786I was really interested in this piece by Cathy Fitzgerald on Hannah Arendt and her prediction that a new form of totalitarianism involving state-sanctioned ecocide would arise. This was a newly invented term in 1970 and Arendt talked about it in her last few years. Cathy acknowledges that Arendt is mainly associated with commentary on the ‘banality of evil’ of Nazism, and that the importance of this work shouldn’t be lost. But Cathy concludes that “A different but somehow similar situation is now occurring with ecocide, in how it is both right here and ‘hidden’ in political denial and our world of mass distractions and hyperconsumerism.” I agreed with the importance of updating Arendt’s thinking and, as a film about her opens in our cinemas this week, I shared the article on social media. I felt that it could be controversial but wasn’t sure how it would turn out.

Very quickly…

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Quick fix to Alberta’s ongoing oil spill: drain the lake

I’ve been trying to keep tabs on Alberta’s ongoing oil spill that started several months ago (see previous posts here and here and, for why they matter given the current regulatory regime, see here).

The latest news from Reuters is that the company in charge of the operation, CNRL, has been ordered to drain the lake where the spill is occurring. The lake is over 50 hectares, or over 100 acres, in area (I don’t know what the depth is) and about 2/3 of the water is supposed to be drained. There are some mixed messages as well, such as the claim that water quality has not been affected – presumably, I suppose, because bitumen is heavier than water and, given the slow nature of the leak, it may just be sitting on the bed of the lake. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the entire aquatic ecology of the lake isn’t affected. Again, however, just a bit of me wondering aloud on how to make sense of that claim.

This news comes as a delegation from Alberta is about to go on a charm offensive in Europe as the EU gets set to vote on a fuel quality directive that could impact imports from oil sands sites.

In other news…

If you have a chance to tune in today to CBC Radio’s program Q you can hear Edward Burtynsky and Jennifer Baichwal talk about their new documentary “Watermark” that is set to be released (or maybe just was). If you miss the program live, podcast download is also available later today. I’ve put this up before, but here is the trailer for that film:

Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim receive Our Joint and Common Future Award

I always appreciate hearing more about the intersections of religion and ecology. Here are two of the leaders in the field, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, accepting the inaugural award in Our Joint and Common Future from UMass (details here).


Understanding the nexus matters

The idea of a water-energy-climate-food “nexus” is not only a buzz word, it is also a new discourse for policy and management. And there are a few items I’ve seen lately on it. One was this piece in the Guardian, suggesting we should punt the term.

I don’t see that happening any time soon. For several reasons. One is that journals, like Water Alternatives, have issued calls for special issues on the nexus. See here for details.

There is also an upcoming conference at UNC next MaAwp-circley on the topic, which there is still time to submit abstracts for.

Finally, there is this new site, Agripedia, that uses the nexus concept as a platform for organizing information on development.

Not that journals, conferences or websites make the world go round, but just to say that understanding the genesis and evolution of the nexus idea should be part of any critical repertoire in water management/policy studies. And that it will be interesting to see what kind of burden this concept comes to carry as it develops – particularly because it is often connected to the notion of water security.

Ethics and politics in the Anthropocene

One of the advantages of blogging is that you create an online reservoir of interesting stuff you can refer to later. So this is a sort of (selfish) library post.

A while back there was a post from Levi Bryant on ethics and politics without Nature. And an interesting response was posted over at the Synthetic Zero blog on ethics and politics in the Anthropocene. And Helen Pallett has a guest post at the Rachel Carson blog (seeing the woods) on spatial and temporal challenges to how we think about the Anthropocene.

I’m not going to attempt any mass synthesis, or even a clever turn of phrase on these posts. They are worth reading for their attempts to grapple with how we govern not only our actions, but also to a significant degree our meditations, about a very complex world.

Back to the book

I’ll be spending the next months in Boston while I work out the final chapters of the book I’ve been writing this year. It should be great – I’ve got loads of interesting archival material on early U.S. water policy. To my knowledge, this material hasn’t been published on anywhere. If it is, it is well hidden.

I’ve also been enjoying the surge in publications that identify how U.S. water policy ‘went global’ in the mid-20th century. Here are a few pieces I think are particularly good:

Sneddon, C. 2012. The “Sinew of Development”: Cold War geopolitics, technological expertise and river alteration in Southeast Asia, 1954-1975. Social Studies of Science 42(4):564-590.

One of the most significant yet largely hidden outcomes of the Cold War was the proliferation of hundreds of large, multipurpose dams throughout Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America under the auspices of programs of water resource development. These programs were the result of technical assistance programs created and guided by various organs of the US government. Carried out as an effort to convince newly independent states of America’s support and good intentions, this proliferation of water expertise was spearheaded by the US Bureau of Reclamation – an agency of the Department of Interior that became embroiled within efforts of the State Department to achieve specific geopolitical goals by containing the spread of global communism. This paper examines the evolution of a technopolitical network constructed around the Bureau’s most intensive engagement in supervising water resource development overseas, the promotion and design of the Pa Mong dam on the Mekong River during the 1960s. This case contributes to ongoing debates over the convergence between technical expertise and water by considering the complex intermingling – and co-production – of geopolitical practices and technological knowledge and expertise in efforts to transform rivers that were characteristic of the mid-20th century.

Sneddon, C. and C. Fox. 2011. The Cold War, the US Bureau of Reclamation and the technopolitics of river basin development, 1950-1970. Political Geography, 30(8):450-460.

This paper examines the links between Cold War geopolitics and economic development to explain the relatively rapid proliferation of the concept of river basin development throughout so-called “developing areas” of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America during the latter half of the twentieth century. The research focuses on the United States Bureau of Reclamation, the most significant water resource development agency of the US government, and its engagement in what it termed “foreign activities” beginning in the aftermath of World War II. Grounded in recent work on technopolitics, the constructed scales of water resource development, and histories of the “global” Cold War, this research examines the advancement of water resource development in the Litani River basin in Lebanon—as guided by staff of the US Bureau of Reclamation—during the period from 1950 to 1970. The Bureau operated as a geopolitical agent attempting to implement a universalized model of river basin development, but encountered continuous difficulties in the form of political and biophysical contingencies. The Bureau’s efforts, centred on the basin as the most appropriate unit of development, were consistently undercut by scale-making projects related to global and regional geopolitical concerns. The research concludes that understandings of the technopolitics of development interventions would benefit from a closer engagement with recent discussions regarding the construction of spatial scale within political geography and related fields. River basin development and its material transformation of multiple locales remains one of the largely neglected, but vitally important, legacies of Cold War geopolitics.

Bakker K, 2013, “Constructing ‘public’ water: the World Bank, urban water supply, and the biopolitics of development” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 31(2) 280 – 300

Abstract. This paper presents a historical analysis of the evolution of the World Bank’s policies on urban water supply networks, from 1960 to the late 1980s. The analysis frames urban water supply as an attempt (contested and incomplete) to extend the biopolitical power of developmental states. I argue that the World Bank’s agenda was predicated on a set of contradictions (and an untenable public/private binary) that contributed to the emergence of ‘state failure’ arguments by the late 1980s. This perspective enables critical reflection on the historical origins of the concept of ‘state failure’, and on contemporary debates over urbanization, infrastructure, and development.

Great conference: Under Western Skies

This event promises to be great. I had the chance to participate in 2010, and will be planning something for this next gathering (ideas for panels or sessions we could put together very welcome!) The line up for keynotes is impressive. Here is the site.

Intersections of Environments, Technologies, and Communities

Call for Proposals and Panels

September 9 – 13, 2014
Mount Royal University
Calgary, AB CANADA

Under Western Skies is a biennial, interdisciplinary conference on the environment. The third conference welcomes academics from across the disciplines as well as members of artistic and activist communities, non- and for-profit organizations, government, labour, and NGOs to address collectively the environmental challenges faced by human and nonhuman actors.

The conference is held on the Mount Royal University campus (Calgary, Alberta, CANADA) in the LEED Gold-certified Roderick Mah Centre for Continuous Learning.

Keynote speakers for the 2014 conference include:

•Timothy Ingold (
•Adrian Ivakhiv (
•Bruno Latour (
•Patty Limerick (
•Bron Taylor (

The theme of UWS 2014 is Environments, Technologies, and Communities.

This is a call for contributions from all environmental fields of inquiry and endeavor, including the humanities, natural and social sciences, public policy, business, and law.  Artistic, creative, and non-academic proposals are also welcome.  Possible directions may include, but are not limited to

agriculture, food, and food security
alpine and glacial change
animal rights and commodification
architecture and design
borders and transnational issues
climate shock
collaboration between scientific and non-scientific communities
continental “perimeter security”
community health
determinants of health
direct action and activism
ecology economics
ecosystem services
environmental catastrophe and community
environmental colonialism
environmental devastation as neo-colonialism
environmental economies
environmental humanities
environmental racism and justice
environmental technologies
feedlots and runoff
fisheries and oceans
forests and forestry
Global Great Lakes
historical perspectives
human and nonhuman migration
indigenous environmental kinship
indigenous land, air, and water rights
indigenous worldviews and sovereignties
interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity
invasive species
the Keystone and XL Pipelines and continental integration
law and public policy
prose and poetry
marine ecosystems
nanotechnology and the environment
national and regional Parks
new continental weather patterns
nuclear culture and power after Fukushima
oil culture
oil/tar sands
politics of meat
restoration, reclamation, reparation
resurrection of species
the rights of nature
seeds and seed patents
senses of place
technology as social construction
tourism and amenity migration
urban wilding and wilderness
water rights, watersheds, and water ecosystems
weather patterns
wildlife and animality
women’s, gender and/or sexuality studies
youth, education, and activism

A selection of papers will go forward for an edited book publication following UWS 2014. The collection of edited papers stemming from UWS 2010 is forthcoming from Wilfrid Laurier University Press as a part of its Environmental Humanities Series (

UWS 2014 conference proposals/abstracts should run no more than 250 words in length and be attached to an email as a .doc or .docx file. Proposals for papers, readings, panels, screenings, displays, and workshops are welcome.

Direct all proposals, together with brief bio and contact information, to Liam Haggarty:

Closing Date:   January 10, 2014

20 problems with geoengineering, 1 problem with that thing…Nature

I have a few posts on geoengineering lately (Hamilton’s new book, Earthmasters, an upcoming workshop, and on competing views). I thought I would add this recent essay to the mix on 20 reasons geoengineering may be a bad idea [PDF]. An interesting aspect of the essay is an inserted text box on the ethics of geoengineering.

This normative dimension was of interest to me because I’m finalizing my latest book chapter this week on the topic of ethics, governance and geoengineering in the Anthropocene. It will be out next year and I’ll have more details then.

Approaching geoengineering from within the Anthropocene requires considering the broader view of the world that legitimated (I would argued that required is more accurate) a wealthy minority of humans taking such a disproportionate and large share of the earth’s life support systems. It also requires confronting the idea of Nature held in that troublesome view. On this, Ursula Heise has a new essay on that thing formerly known as Nature. You can read it here.

Here are the first two paragraphs:

Encounters with the Thing Formerly Known as Nature

Ursula Heise

September 9, 2013 — We used to call it nature: forests, lakes, foxes, butterflies, mosquitoes, dandelions. Soils and oceans. Seasonal cycles. Also floods and heat waves and the occasional hurricane. But no more: as Bill McKibben, the environmental writer and activist founder of, put it back in 1989, climate change implies the end of nature. Nature, McKibben argued, meant a realm separate from human agency, at least for the modern American society of the last two centuries. Anthropogenic climate change, by transforming even places where no human has yet set foot, even atmospheric processes and ocean depths, leaves no particle of the planet untouched and therefore puts it all under the sway of human action. Nature as we used to know it, as the other of human society, is no more.

The idea that true nature is only what has not been touched by humans has since come under serious attack as a distinctively American environmentalist bias. It has little traction in developing countries, where environmentalism often means local communities defending their own uses of nature, or in Europe, where untouched nature has been a scarce commodity for centuries. But the idea that humankind now faces a new and fundamentally changed natural world took shape in 2000, when the atmospheric scientist Paul Crutzen and the ecologist Eugene Stoermer proposed the notion of the “Anthropocene,” a new geological era distinct from the Holocene. Humans’ impact on the planet is now so pervasive that it will be visible even in the Earth’s geological strata, Crutzen and Stoermer suggested, and this justifies thinking of our time as a new and different planetary age.” READ MORE HERE

Early reactions to Alberta’s wetland policy

Well, that didn’t take long. There is an article in the Edmonton Journal on environmental groups and their criticisms of Alberta’s new wetland policy. Mainly, but not solely, because it exempts a large number of industry projects.

There is also a detailed response from the Environmental Law Centre here. It describes the policy as taking baby steps in an adult world.