Professor: Anand Vaidya
Despite enormous scientific and political efforts, scientists and activists have found themselves unable to bring about the political changes that might reverse climate change and environmental degradation. The degradation of earth’s environment has been caused by humans, but somehow humans have not able to stop or reverse the social processes that cause this degradation. This seminar examines case studies of environmental degradation at multiple scales, from superfund sites in Massachusetts to deforestation in the Amazon to global climate change, to three ends: to explore fundamental questions in social theory about human agency and historical change, to understand why coordinated scientific and political efforts to prevent environmental degradation have tended to fail, and to think through new political and environmental interventions that might succeed. The material that this course covers draws from environmental science, history, political economy, and anthropology, and one of the major tasks of this course is to search for ways to reconcile social scientific and natural scientific theories and methods and to think through ways to apply the results of this reconciliation.
The seminar starts with a consideration of environmental pollution close to Cambridge, and moves to three other sites over the course of the semester, each further afield and at a larger scale. We begin with the Wells G & H superfund site in Woburn, examining the history of the site as well the history of efforts to determine the extent of its contamination and to clean that contamination. We will draw on readings from Boston newspapers, the EPA's reports, and the environmental history of New England to come to a preliminary analysis of environmental politics and degradation at a local scale. We will then compare the analysis produced in the seminar with readings from William Cronon and Karl Marx about the relationship between people and their environment. From Woburn, we will move to regional environmental change and politics: conflicts over land and conservation in New Mexico. We then explore people’s relationship with the environment in Ecuador, first examining how indigenous communities have struggled against oil companies and then turning to the scale of the individual, and how people and dogs “dream together”. We then move to the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, examining how these individuals, when their bodies themselves affected by environmental damage, reshape the terms of citizenship. We will spend the final unit of the semester considering global climate change, looking at the work of the International Panel on Climate Change and its political detractors, drawing on analyses from Dipesh Chakrabarty and others.