About this Project

2014 – 2016

Human beings are making a profound and irreversible impact on the natural world. This happens largely through industrial activity. And while we have sophisticated abilities to track such changes—for example, we can map the effects of carbon pollution—we lack a deep understanding of the social impact of these “engineered ecologies.” What new political, economic, and legal practices would help states and multinational organizations grapple more effectively with toxic exposure and the unequal distribution of ecological risk? The goal of the Engineered Worlds initiative—comprising two related projects (2014–2016 and 2016–2017)—was to create new theoretical frameworks and social science methodologies to address these urgent questions.

Because any rigorous attempt to reconsider the terms of environmental justice requires a range of perspectives, the Engineered Worlds project adopted an interdisciplinary approach. The research team brought together anthropologists, historians, geographers, and environmentalists to work in a collaborative setting on the ways industry is irrevocably altering ecologies and social relations. In a series of seminars, workshops, and conferences, they considered what social policies might adequately address problems of toxicity introduced into the environment. More generally, they wanted to take on the challenge: How should humans deal with their own transformation of the natural world? But, of course, to take on the large issues one needs to study specific problems. The research group studied in detail cultural applications of changing agricultural processes, community organizing in the shadow of Washington State’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation, and metal production at Peru’s national seaport. Researchers considered various forms of personal identification and collective action in light of the mounting effects of toxicity, financial insecurity, and militarism.

The project included the arts. In the spring of 2015, the research team welcomed two artists for talks co-sponsored by the University’s Arts, Science, and Culture initiative. The internationally renowned landscape photographer Michael Light discussed his work documenting the impacts of mining operations, nuclear weapons tests, and large-scale housing developments in and around Las Vegas, and Columbia University professor of architecture Laura Kurgan explored the use of data visualization as a tool for public education and mobilization on environmental issues.

From the outset, the project self-consciously enlisted the next generation as part of the larger network of scholars working on planetary-scale environmental change. Two collaborative seminars focused on problems of temporality and scale in the earth sciences. Of particular concern was how to visualize the massive data that establishes environmental harm. With better visualization techniques we will be able to think better about how to address the ensuing social harms. Twelve graduate students have decided to do their research and write their dissertations addressing these issues. Several have been awarded external funding; some have presented their Engineered Worlds research to professional association meetings. These seem to be the beginnings of a new field of research.

Although the impact of this generational investment will come into focus over years, the project has already yielded concrete results. The research team is assembling case studies and co-authoring a series of papers to articulate a new methodology for studying planetary-scale industrial effects. They are also honing a new theory of “toxic violence” that reckons with the unintended consequences of industrial activity in the present and on geological time scale.

The group has also made a course on the Anthropocene widely available by circulating a syllabus, crucial texts, and topics for discussion. The challenges that this research team took up—environmental justice and the political challenges of climate change—are being studied by other concerned groups around the world, and a significant number of them are drawing on the work of the Engineered Worlds team.

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