Viewing contemporary environmental politics through the lens of crisis or destruction may lead to an unnecessarily apocalyptic understanding of our contemporary ecological predicament. A different view draws on English and American pluralist philosophies, and highlights the role of potentiality, knowledge and uncertainty at work when technologies amplify ecological relations in ways both terrifying and hopeful. This view places technology and ecology on the same side of the equation, rather than positioning them as opposites, and emphasizes the role of uncertain knowledge in the emergence of anthropogenic ecologies. In this talk I elaborate on late industrial capitalist ecologies from the vantage point of sustainable hydropower development in Laos. Because industrial technologies produce emergent relations it may be useful to say that late industrial environments are constituted by uncertainty. I draw on Susan Harding's term underdetermination to argue that uncertainty is a subjectifying and productive force whereby people conform themselves to emergent ecological relations through the interplay of threat and opportunity. This leads to surprising results in understanding the relation between culture and ecology without implying that people are either rational-objective observers or sociobiological automatons.

Jerome Whitington is Visiting Assistant Professor at New York University. He is the author of ‘Anthropogenic Rivers: The Production of Uncertainty in Lao Hydropower’ (2018, Cornell University Press) based on ethnographic work in the hydropower industry in Laos. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the Climate Justice Research Project at Dartmouth College before spending five years as a Lecturer and Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore. He is currently writing a genealogy of the science of anthropogenic climate change, while conducting ethnographic research for a project called Accounting for Atmosphere: Climate change, quantification and the new Earth. Broadly speaking, he is interested in people engaged in environmental practices from compromised positions.

The seminar is co-arranged by the Department of Social Anthropology and the Forum for Asian Studies.