Josh Cinner, Anna Tsing, and the Meadowlands

Three different takes on thinking about people and nature:

1) A profile of our colleague Josh Cinner in Science (a conservation social scientist):

Now a senior research fellow at James Cook University (JCU) in Townsville, Australia, Cinner studies how coral reefs and people interact in a vast swath of the Southern Hemisphere. “People often have trouble understanding why a social scientist is involved because they think it’s the realm of the marine biologists,” he says. But it makes sense in the context of coral reefs, which are host to dozens of species of fish that provide food and income for nearby villages. “You don’t manage fish. Fish swim and they do their own thing. You manage people. Managing ecosystems is really about managing people and understanding what motivates them and their behaviors.”

Cinner and [Tim] McClanahan have found that different places felt different effects of coral bleaching based on how much people depended on fish and tourism for a living and how flexible the local people were. In Madagascar, rigid taboos govern when people can fish and what gear they can use. “This actually leads to a bit of rigidity and stifles how people are able to adapt,” Cinner says. In Kenya, some people are so desperately poor that when the reefs are in trouble, they just fish harder in the same places. But in the wealthier Seychelles, people have boats that can take them farther out, to target fish that don’t live on the reefs.

These observations have led to ideas about how to protect reefs, and the people who depend on them, during coral-bleaching events. For example, if coral die and algae take over, it’s much harder for coral to get reestablished. But if the reef hosts plenty of parrotfish — which graze on algae and keep the reef clean — the coral will be more likely to come back. Spearfishing particularly targets parrotfish, so one strategy might be to buy back spearfishing gear from Kenyan fishermen to protect parrotfish and make a reef more resilient to climate change, while leaving fishermen with other means to fish.

Cinner wants to extend this work to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, looking for other ways to help people and coral reefs survive climate change. Working in so many cultures is challenging, he says. “I sometimes have to go through four different languages to remember the word. I might say it in Swahili, Portuguese, and Spanish, and then realize I’m trying to speak Malagasy or something.” He says it’s also tough being away from home so much of the time; last year, he was outside of Australia for about 150 days. But all that is outweighed by the excitement of his research. “You never know what’s going to happen when you step off a bus into a dusty place you’ve never been,” Cinner says. “That feeling never really goes away no matter how many times you do it. It’s almost always worked out for me.”

3) The anthropology blog Savage Minds mentions well-known anthropologist Anna Tsing‘s discussion of the need for alternatives to Actor-Network Theory (which has been discussed on Resilience Science a few times). Savage Minds author Kerim Friedman writes:

Anna Tsing’s current research (or at least what she focused on in her talk) is about mushrooms, focusing on the ways in which mushroom cultivation reuses damaged (“blasted”) landscapes. Drawing on the work of Deborah Bird Rose, she emphasized the way in which these practices allow for a kind of “recuperation” for all the species inhabiting the landscape. She also talked about “multi-species anthropology” as an alternative to Actor-Network Theory. She argued that whereas ANT is useful for inanimate technologies which are animated by their interaction with humans, it is less useful for species which are already alive. Obviously, not all living organisms are relevant to every study, so once again the question of scale is important, and must be determined ethnographically. (See Juno’s Savage Minds review of When Species Meet.)

3) Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG writes about two books on New Jersey’s Meadowlands, a feral landscape within greater New York City.  He writes:

“Just five miles west of New York City,” the back cover of Sullivan’s book reads, are the Meadowlands: “this vilified, half-developed, half-untamed, much dumped-on, and sometimes odiferous tract of swampland is home to rare birds and missing bodies, tranquil marshes and a major sports arena, burning garbage dumps and corporate headquarters, the remains of the original Penn Station, and maybe, just maybe, of the late Jimmy Hoffa.” It is “mysterious ground that is not yet guidebooked,” Sullivan writes inside, “where European landscape painters once set up their easels to paint the quiet tidal estuaries and old cedar swamps,” but where, now, “there are real hills in the Meadowlands and there are garbage hills. The real hills are outnumbered by the garbage hills.”

Lutz’s book describes the region as a “32-square-mile stretch of sweeping wilderness that evokes morbid fantasies of Mafia hits and buried remains.” As Lutz explained in a 2008 interview with Photoshelter, “When I first saw the Meadowlands I was completely blown away at this vast open space with the Manhattan skyline in the distance. It was this space that existed between spaces, somewhere between urban and suburban all the while made up of swamps, towns and intersecting highways. None of it made any sense to me, still doesn’t.”

All told, the area has become, Sullivan writes, “through negligence, through exploitation, and through its own chaotic persistence, explorable again.”

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