Last night, I had the chance to see Robin Nagle give a talk at Ohio Wesleyan University. The title of her presentation was “The Gift of Garbage: Ethnographic Curiosities of Waste, Value, and Infrastructure,” which drew from her on-going research with the Department of Sanitation in New York City. In the first half of the talk, she focused on understanding waste through anthropological theorizations of gift exchange, describing the contemporary production of garbage as “a passive form of competitive exchange” and a type of “inverted potlatch.” She shifted gears in the second part of her presentation, and asked us to help her solve a puzzle. She then showed us what she referred to as the “Molina Collection.”
Around 20 years ago, Nelson Molina, a New York City sanitation worker, began picking out items from the garbage that caught his eye. Eventually, Molina’s pickings developed into a veritable collection, a museum of sorts, that was housed in the Sanitation Department garage. Nagle shared images of the collection: rows of old polaroid cameras, dozens of furbies neatly aligned on shelves, old sports pennants, super hero dolls–an endless array of fascinating little things that told us about the history of New York and its people.
Three years ago, I posted an article here that highlighted 2012 as the hottest year recorded in the United States. Today, the New York Times reported that 2015 has the distinction of being the hottest year in recorded history. I should add that the previous record-breaking year was 2014. Climate researchers point out that a strong El Niño effect was a contributing factor in 2015, but it seems increasingly clear that climate change is causing generalized warming of the planet. Of course, what we should be doing about this is the real question we need to ask ourselves in 2016.
This year I am starting a new position in the Department of Anthropology at (THE!) Ohio State University. My hire is part of OSU’s Initiative for Food and Agricultural Transformation (INfact), one of the many new Discovery Themes on campus. This initiative is recruiting dozens of new faculty who approach the study of food and agriculture from diverse disciplines, including anthropology, architecture, nutrition, political science, and public health, among others. I will continue to be working in the Amazon region (both in Peru and Brazil) and the American Midwest, focusing on farmer’s conservation management practices and adaptation to climate variability. I am also developing a new project that investigates the use of human waste (“biosolids” or “night soil”) in contemporary agriculture.
For the past year, I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a short book about the urban Amazon. Most of what is written about Amazonia is focused on its forests and rivers, its flora and fauna. When people are discussed, most often it’s indigenous groups living in isolated reaches of the region, or those who are fighting against bulldozers and dams that threaten their livelihoods and even their very lives. I don’t want to detract from any of those struggles. They might matter now more than ever. But today, it’s usually overlooked that the bulk of Amazonians live in cities, and little of the media coverage that circulates outside of the region is focused on their lives.
Here I offer a brief introduction to the urban Amazon, and more specifically, the Amazonian city of Manaus:
A short essay of mine was just published in Engagement, the blog of the Anthropology and Environment Society. The piece examines the story of Cobra Grande, a massive snake of Amazonian folklore that is implicated in the region’s ever-shifting hydrological landscape. I argue that Cobra Grande is more than just a quaint folk tale, but rather a central Amazonian metaphor that reminds that our surroundings are in constant flux, and that humans are not the only ones responsible for this ongoing transformation.
My first book Amazonia in the Anthropocene: People, Soils, Plants, Forests will be published this May with the University of Texas Press. You can order it here.
I just published a short essay in The Atlantic about my days checking gas lines. It illustrates how much of our infrastructure is designed to channel substances that we can’t fully control.