At the Interface: Infrastructure and the Anthropocene

Infrastructure, Environment and Life in the Anthropocene, Kregg Hetherington, editor. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019).

Reviewed by Stephanie Kane, Indiana University

A working group of geoscientists recently made the idea of the Anthropocene official. By virtue of their passion and disciplinary authority, earth scientists have been central in propelling this term into academia and world culture. However, this edited volume shows why it takes anthropologists and cultural geographers to bring the concept to life—to make it work, socially, politically and ecologically. This book puts the concept to the ethnographic test, perhaps paradoxically, by making the Anthropocene less anthropocentric: revealing, without reveling in, humanity’s geological agency. Integrating the Anthropocene concept into a rich set of ethnographic themes and sites, these essays focus on fuzzy infrastructural-environmental interfaces. These lively interfaces emerge ethnographically as dynamic conceptual and geophysical territories and disturb conventional distinctions between social and natural categories, context and surround, figure and ground (pp. 4, 6). We see how assemblages of plants and animals, water, food, and energy, conspire to live as, with, and despite the crazy quilt of urban pipe networks, industrial architectures, landfills and landing strips wrought by engineering, art, accident, and crime. Pointing to the far horizons of human-caused habitat harms, and analyzing the enhancements, enchantments and efficiencies that justify them, the essays evoke a diverse range of multi-scalar yet place-based puzzles, many of which long predate the “Anthropocene” as a geo-cultural term.

Hetherington opens with an introduction that sets the tone. The surprising new scientific understanding of humans as geological actors is met with ambivalence. Readers will not find an arrogant Anthropocene in these pages. The authors point out in several ways that the term’s apparent usefulness, guiding responses to planetary dilemmas, must be hedged by caveats. Collectively, then, the authors pivot toward alternative, non-binary pathways for thinking through and acting in this fraught planetary moment of uncertainty and opportunity.

The volume is organized in three parts. The contributors to Part I, “Reckoning with Ground,” explore the material-semiotic and techno-social work that actors rely on to distinguish, or disguise, relationships between infrastructural and environmental forms. Ballestero in Costa Rica: Gambling with powers of discernment, technicians attempt to define and model an aquifer as a legally distinct volumetric space separate from the clay, gravel and sand with which it shares the underground. Muehlmann in the US-Mexico Borderlands: drug traffickers tactically deploy what appear to the uninitiated as furrows in a dried-up riverbed—actually, clandestine airstrips hiding in plain sight.  Gordillo in Argentina: with logistical powers that exceed apprehension by ordinary observers, soy producers create industrial-scale assemblages that open dangerous, extractive, and profit-making, connections between hinterland outposts and planetary networks. The ethnographic analyses in Part I show how, in practice, the conventional notion of ‘ground’ falls apart under scrutiny, especially as any truly foundational ground is complicated by impossible-to-measure underground volumes; or by infra-structures that are not at all physically infra- and may even inhabit the very bodies of indigenous people who live, as it were, on the very ground in question; or by scales of interaction that paradoxically transcend-yet-connect otherwise distant grounds. And this is not mere messiness; this is how things actually work.

The second part, “Lively Infrastructures,” animates the elements at play. Carse in Panama: weeds growing in the once manicured canal zone, post-U.S. withdrawal, move the boundary separating infrastructure and environment. The weedy encroachment testifies to the lack of essential maintenance work and the fact and sense of abandonment. Myers in Singapore and Austria: two unprecedented gardens induce dissonant imaginaries: one, a labor/energy/design-intensive botanical spectacle of global renown trapped in an extractive Anthropocene; the other, a radically strange artistic act in the form of a counter-garden that starts with a patch of urban ground, a fence and seeds dropped by bird-allies, and that becomes a place for plants to guide us to ways of living otherwise. Anand in India: while moving through leaking urban infrastructures for distributing potable water, water flows through myriad underground pathways—not all of them pipes. Flowing water contests the arrogance of governance regimes, defies quantitative measurement and two-dimensional maps, and forces speculation and pragmatic compromises among the engineers endeavoring to make things work. The essays in Part II suggest that while livable versions of the Anthropocene may involve technological advances that help control the nature we have wrought, they must also certainly entail collaborations with plant, animal and elemental nonhumans, which need to be acknowledged in all their diverse and essential liveliness.

The third part, “Histories of Progress,” takes readers into political and ecological conundrums sedimented in and unfolding along infrastructural-environmental interfaces. Zeiderman in Colombia: an Afro-Colombian settlement built on stilts sits on top of rising, brackish waters; elevated pathways connect homes and link to electricity and potable water grids, and yet are threatened by inundation. As state decision-makers eye the settlement for urban removal, sustainability experts from elsewhere see an indigenous example of adaptive architecture. The situation suggests the necessity of continued scholarly engagement with the impact of racial politics and logics of exclusion even in the context of a more-than-human environmental vision. Wakefield and Braun in the United States: as sea levels rise around post-Hurricane Sandy Manhattan, an inventive plan emerges to build protective breakwaters by seeding the estuarial harbor with oysters. Reefs that can mitigate future flood disasters will be created by one organism attaching to another and another, and by humans managing oysters in order to manage humans—a biopolitical experiment. Jensen in Cambodia: although Phnom Penh’s sunshine and low labor costs attract start-up solar power companies, hydropower dams in the Mekong river basin dominate international energy investment and infrastructure-driven human and ecological transformation (much of it destructive); yet, even so, it is worth taking solar energy seriously as an alternative if only because having multiple possibilities may afford room to maneuver in uncertain futures. Masco in the US and beyond: even as two major crises threaten the existence of life on earth—nuclear proliferation (swiftly) and climate change (slowly and incrementally)—the mass media, spewing news of these and other constant crises, mesmerize planetary publics while limiting possibilities for coordinated action in international law. Humans have accomplished such coordinated action before, however: for example in 1963, when the US, the UK, and the Soviet Union signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. How might scholars turn away from detailing precarity after precarity and instead work on activating positive theoretical and pragmatic pathways toward survival? Overall, the chapters in Part III move toward such questions, firmly at the Anthropocene’s planetary scale. This ultimately sends readers back to the beginning, to search again through those empirical situations where it is possible to study, to discern ways to act, to theorize anew, and to find opportunities to dismantle the worst of what communities and governments have wrought. The task these authors undertake is to discover, or retrieve, the kinds of environment-infrastructure relations that might help scholars and inhabitants, place-by-place and all together, avoid the Holocene’s final end.

Readers will take different pathways through the chapters in this volume, which would be could be used effectively in either upper undergraduate or graduate seminars. PoLAR readers will find political and legal materials and pivot points embedded in the analyses and arguments in ways that may well open new insights into their own work or open doors to new projects. For anthropologists, cultural geographers, scientists, planners, activists, and artists, the volume elucidates collective human actions and how they are related to engineering, nature, art, subjectivity and the aesthetics of control. The chapters make punctual interventions, exploring urban planning and climate change in coastal and riverine cities, the intersections of technoscience and law, and the differing roles of measurement and speculation in knowledge production and governance.

By definition, phenomena at the scale of infrastructural-environmental interfaces inhabit the meso scale: linking the city-habitat to cities-as-habitat-incursions in their own right, and addressing built environments more generally while describing infrastructures that connect hinterlands and megalopolises (like pipelines and container shipping routes). The reshaping of the earth’s volumetric surfaces through processes at this scale, in their relation to atmospheres and oceans, is a central aspect of the Anthropocene. Between the preponderance of satellite-driven visual data and the many ethnographies whose substance relies mostly on inter-personal and smaller group data collection, scholars must invent methods and theories for approaching planetary timespaces in the middle range.  For as these authors show, life—insofar as we can keep it going—is, and will be, fundamentally shaped by the experimental and uncertain relation between geo-bio-physical processes and collective imaginations, where infrastructure and the environment meet.