Category Archives: Easter 2024 Edition: ‘Ecologies’

Tarina Franklin, ‘Narrative and Romance in ‘Ecologies’ and Beyond’

For more than half of my life, I was devoted to the prospect of a career in natural science, which I romanticised as a cradle of wisdom containing the solutions to any problem or injustice worthy of academic and popular attention. Over time, however, I grew increasingly aware of the chasm that seemed to separate raw empirics from much of human social life. Why had genomic evidence of a common ancestor done little to diminish our creation and ‘othering’ of outgroups? Why were innovations in the fields of renewable energy, disease prevention and ecological preservation not reliably implemented with systematic success? In search of a way of looking at the world that would help me enquire further, I began an undergraduate degree in Human, Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and eventually landed on social anthropology when deciding to pursue postgraduate studies. However, alongside starting to find potential answers to my questions, it dawned on me that the humanities were by no means devoid of a myopia similar to my prior reverence for physics and biology, including ecology. This piece is an attempt to illustrate some implications for anthropological outlooks on ‘ecologies’. 

The author as an aspiring paleontologist, 2007. Credit to C. Franklin.

The postmodernist canon successfully identified knowledge as inseparable from narrative (e.g. Foucault 2001 [1961], 2013 [1969]; Derrida 2016 [1967]; Baudrillard 1994 [1981]). Within and beyond the anthropological academy, a salient nexus of scholarship has drawn from this a distinctive approach to ‘nature’, ‘culture’ and ‘the human’, implicating not only approaches to ‘ecologies’, but also ‘new kinship studies’, queer studies, and efforts to engage with the non-human. I suggest that this cluster of ideas runs the risk of either neglecting the schematics of ecological processes themselves, or conveniently characterising them as ‘cultural’ whenever they are counted as politically palatable. There also emerges a totalising narrative in which an attribution of romantic virtue to subversion, confounding and ‘queering’ supplants bio-essentialist or anthropocentric logics. Both can occur in texts that affirm ‘the material’, and in those intent on problematising it. In response, we would do well to add to existing emphases on ecological relationality a conscious caution over romanticist end-all-be-all narratives in the context of ‘ecologies’ and beyond. 

This January, I attended a talk by Professor Marilyn Strathern and Professor Sarah Franklin at Christs’ College, Cambridge. Their conversation was a chance to hear both scholars reflect on their collaboration on Before and After Gender: Sexual Mythologies of Everyday Life (2016) and attracted a bustling audience. Towards the end, Strathern mentioned having come across a volume titled Queering Knowledge: Analytics, Devices and Investments after Marilyn Strathern (2018), and declared her gratitude for the prominence of her ideas in such recent scholarship (Strathern & Franklin 2024). Queering Knowledge is the 2020 winner of the Ruth Benedict Prize for Outstanding Edited Volume. In its concluding chapter, Henrietta Moore extols “the romance of the human at one with the natural” and declares it a “duty” of social science “not just to describe the world as it is” (2018: 190–91).

In addition to Franklin’s editorship, the Afterword in Before and After Gender was contributed by Judith Butler. Last year, Butler spoke at the University of Cambridge as a prelude to their new book, Who’s Afraid of Gender? (2024), which concerns “the anti-gender movement”. Following an introduction again delivered by Franklin, Butler argues that a network of actors, including certain religious leaders, feminists and right-wing populists, now wield power by presenting ‘gender’ as a destructive “phantasm” (Butler 2023). This framing of ‘gender’ as a subject of unfounded concern contrasts with Butler’s earlier emphases on its regulatory character as part of an “exclusionary matrix […] a normative phantasm” (1993: x–xiii, see also Butler 1990). More relevant, though, is the distinction between the “threat” of gender and a list of “legitimate anxieties about climate destruction, intensified economic precarity, war, environmental toxins, and police violence” (Butler 2024). 

In 2018, a series of panels at the annual American Anthropological Association and Association for Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth harnessed the conceptual framework of ‘embodied ecologies’ for the purpose of “emphasising relations instead of entities” (Ford 2019). Approaches cited as inspiration include Franklin’s work on kinship and Eduardo Kohn’s challenge to what constitutes nature, culture and ‘the material’. They also include Julie Cruikshank’s work on glaciers, climate change and ‘local knowledge’, which attributes dismissals of indigenous narratives about human ecology in northwestern North America as ‘superstition’ to the postulation of colonial logics as ‘common sense’ (2005: 20). For Cruikshank, unlike the Western canon, indigenous oral traditions offer an opportunity to “subvert imposed boundaries” between humans and the natural world (ibid.: 221; see also Cruikshank 2001; de la Cadena 2015). 

‘Relations’, ‘ecologies’ or the ‘more-than-human’ contrast themselves in these texts with assumptions of scientific objectivity. Accordingly, Franklin recalled during her conversation with Strathern that, prior to the turn to ‘relations’ and contestation of biological sex as a heuristic, “anthropologists were busy deconstructing everything except biology – biology was taken to be this set of facts” (Franklin 2024). Between then and now, however, anthropologists have gone far further than acknowledging the importance of context to all forms of research. Instead, the problematisation of ‘facts’ has been enthusiastic yet highly selective. In particular, the dethroning of ‘sexual difference’ from its primacy as a feminist referent attributes virtue to subversiveness in and of itself. Hence, the joint appraisal of transformation and “romance of the human at one with the natural” in Queering Knowledge. Similarly, Butler’s call for the ‘queering’ of the “heterosexual matrix” rests upon a prophetic promise, according to which if “identities” as “premises of a political syllogism” are deliberately destabilised, “a new configuration of politics would surely emerge from the ruins of the old” (1990: 189–90). The transformationist tone persists in the Introduction to the aforementioned ‘Embodied Ecologies’ collection, which concludes with the hope that “thinking with ecologies will center our shared need to find better ways of living” (Ford 2019). 

It seems that description in and of itself has been ruled out not merely as inaccurate, but as unacceptable on political grounds. The underlying reason for this cannot be an urgency to save lives, as the literature on ‘new kinship’, ‘queering’ and ‘ecologies’ has never limited itself to coverage of crises. Rather, its conceptual bedrock is described in particularly explicit terms by Butler, who aspires to, in their own words, “expose the contingent acts that create the appearance of a naturalistic necessity, a move which has been part of cultural critique at least since Marx” (1990: 44). The Marxist conception of the human calls for a view of oneself as that to which one must devote one’s labour and one’s inner world, resulting in a reconfiguration of material property. The queer theorist conception of the human calls for a subversion of normative regulations as a path to transcending undesirable perceptual categories, including natural scientific ones. 

The term ‘ecologies’ has manifold interpretations, but its use in anthropological contexts tends to imply a biosocial entanglement. My concern is with whether this is used to admit and investigate shortcomings in natural and social sciences alike, or to posit, in the vein of Bruno Latour, that “political ecology has nothing at all to do with “nature” – that blend of Greek politics, French Cartesianism, and American parks” (2004: 4–5). It is when the romanticised approach to transformation is inherited from Marx through queer theory and applied as a derision of ‘nature’ that we arrive at claims, as in the edited volume Queer Ecologies, that “nature” is produced by “oppression” including racism and homophobia, from which it follows that a virtue of “queer acts” is their position “against nature” (Gosine 2010: 149–51). This position goes further than Moore’s in its romanticisation; not of a oneness of humanity and ‘nature’, but in reducing the latter to a product of oppressive sociality. Neither is likely to be conducive to a productive dialogue with natural scientific disciplines. Hence, if an anthropological framework for ‘ecologies’ ends up postulating transformation as its end-all-be-all, it by definition postulates a totalising narrative, as opposed to accepting that no final narrative exists. 

It is vital to note that the revolutionary Marxist strain stands in direct tension with many recent findings on embodied ecologies and human relationality. For example, the field of microbiome research has identified the extent of human-microorganism interaction (such as the number of bacterial cells in human bodies and the impact of non-human organisms on genome development) to supersede the assumptions of prior genome, brain and immune system science (e.g., Hooper et al. 2012; Sender et al. 2016; Rees et al. 2018). This points to the inaccuracy of viewing the human as apart from other animals even at the level of ‘individual’ bodies. Similarly, ethnographic work on pollution, domestic chemical exposure and public health surveillance underscores entanglement and diffuse encounters between human bodies and their environment (e.g., Shapiro 2015; Roberts 2017). The above observations are hardly celebratory, instead pointing to the sheer complexity of ecological damage and relationality. Marx’s social evolutionism is all too easily treated as separable from his dialectical model of resistance and revolution. Thus, his sense of romance has survived in social commentaries on the natural world, which rules out an understanding of ourselves as just another animal inseparable from narrative yet unadvised to play prophet.  

My most thrilling discovery as a social scientist has been that of texts that tackle demanding and often distressing topics in a manner geared first and foremost towards explanation, description and understanding. Doing so is not by definition an attempt to sever facts from narrative or empirics from morality. Describing “the world as it is” without allowing for romantic totalities can include describing the embeddedness of ‘humanity’ in ‘nature’ or indeed ‘data’ in ‘discourse’. Therefore, encouraging a separation of research from transcendentalism should by no means reduce anthropology to “a branch of natural science”, but it does imply that one “starts from the work of his predecessors, finds problems which he believes to be significant, and by observation and reasoning endeavours to make some contribution to a growing body of theory” (Radcliffe-Brown 2004 [1940]: 25). Natural science often struggles to acknowledge the ubiquity of narrative. The anthropological nexus that has sprung up in response struggles to diverge from its own selection of a romantic narrative around ‘troubling’. If scientific and ecological ‘facts’ can indeed be framed in a plethora of ways – which, one should emphasise, does not in itself make all framings equal in accuracy or ethical integrity – we can do better with our narratives, too. 

Tarina Franklin is an MPhil student in Social Anthropological Research at the University of Cambridge, whose current research is centred on pain and body modification. She has also written on transmasculinity, embodiment and logics of care in Finland, and on discourses on race and the far right. Beyond the academy, she has worked in publishing and political consultancy in Helsinki, as well as in clinical consultancy in London, and contributed to projects such as the Uralic Languages and Peoples website and the Festival of Political Photography.


Baudrillard, J. 1994 [1981]. Simulacra and Simulation. Michigan: University of Michigan Press. 

Boyce, P. et al. Ed. Queering Knowledge: Analytics, Devices and Investments after Marilyn Strathern. London: Routledge.

Butler, J. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge.

Butler, J. 1993. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. 2016. Afterword. In: Strathern, M. 2016. Before and After Gender: Sexual Mythologies of Everyday Life. Franklin, S. Ed. Chicago: Hau Books. 

Butler, J. 2023. ‘Who’s Afraid of Gender?’ Talk at West Road Concert Hall, University of Cambridge, 26 April 2023.

Butler, J. 2024. Who’s Afraid of Gender? Allen Lane.

Cruikshank, J. 2001. ‘Glaciers and Climate Change: Perspectives from Oral Tradition.’ Arctic 54(4): 377–93. 

Cruikshank, J. 2005. Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Da la Cadena, M. 2015. Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice Across Andean Worlds. Durham: Duke University Press. 

Derrida, J. 2016 [1967]. Of Grammatology, Trans. Spivak, G. C. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ford, A. 2019. ‘Introduction: Embodied Ecologies.’ Theorizing the Contemporary, Fieldsights, April 25 2019 (available online:, accessed 26 March 2024).

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Foucault, M. 2013 [1969]. The Archaeology of Knowledge, Trans. Smith, A. M. S. London: Routledge.

Hooper, L. V. et al. 2012. ‘Interactions Between the Microbiota and the Immune System.’ Science 336(6086): 1268–73.  

Latour, B. 2004. Politics of Nature: How to Bring Science into Democracy. Harvard University Press. 

Moore, H. 2018. How Exactly Are We Related? In: Boyce, P. et al. Ed. Queering Knowledge: Analytics, Devices and Investments after Marilyn Strathern. London: Routledge.

Radcliffe-brown, A. R. 2004 [1940]. On Social Structure. In: Kuper, A. Ed. The Social Anthropology of Radcliffe-Brown. New York: Routledge. 

Rees, T. et al. 2018. ‘How the Microbiome Changes our Concept of Self.’ PLoS Biology 16(2): e2005358. 

Roberts, E. F. S. 2017. ‘What Gets Inside: Violent Entanglements and Toxic Boundaries in Mexico City.’ Cultural Anthropology 32(4): 592–619. 

Gosine, A. 2010. Non-White Reproduction and Same-Sex Eroticism: Queer Acts Against Nature. In: Sandilands, C. Ed. Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire. Indiana: Indiana University Press. 

Sender, R. et al. 2016. ‘Revised Estimates for the Number of Human and Bacteria Cells in the Body.’ PLoS Biology 14(8): e1002533.

Shapiro, N. 2015. ‘Attuning to the Chemosphere: Domestic Formaldehyde, Bodily Reasoning, and the Chemical Sublime.’ Cultural Anthropology 30(3): 368–93.

Strathern, M. 2016. Before and After Gender: Sexual Mythologies of Everyday Life. Franklin, S. Ed. Chicago: Hau Books.

Strathern, M. & Franklin, S. 2024. ‘Before and After Gender: 50 Years On, A Conversation Between Professor Marilyn Strathern and Professor Sarah Franklin’. Talk at Christs College, University of Cambridge, 24 January 2024. 

Hildegard Diemberger and Sayana Namsaraeva, ‘Water beings in Cosmopolitical Ecologies Across Inner Asia and beyond: Reflections on a cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural workshop’

All images courtesy of Sayana Namsaraeva.

In the morning of March 16th , 2024,  the venerable Lharamba Dobdon Maksarov celebrated a ritual for the water beings of the River Cam, relying on the Tibetan Buddhist tradition as practised in his native Buryatia. The chanting and the gestures resonated with the small crowd of onlookers of all ages and walks of life but predominantly scholars and environmental activists who had gathered in Pembroke College and at the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit to share ideas about water beings and water management across Asia. The glittering waters of the Cam, beautiful and yet troubled, provided the right stage of an encounter that addressed the spiritual qualities of water and their relationship to human and non-human beings living in, with and through them. The workshop “Water management in Inner Asia: human and non-human actors in placed-based approaches”  took place on 15–16 March 2024  and was jointly organised by the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit, Pembroke College (Cambridge) and The Silk Roads Programme of King’s College (Cambridge). 

The workshop “Water management in Inner Asia: human and non-human actors in placed-based approaches”  took place on 15–16 March 2024  and was jointly organized by the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit (MIASU), Pembroke College (Cambridge) and The Silk Roads Programme of King’s College (Cambridge). 

The idea of focusing on water beings, originated with Sayana Namsaraeva, a Buryat anthropologist of the Mongolia and inner Asia Studies Unit (MIASU), who recognised that Lus spirits associated with water in her homeland have deep roots and are widely networked. Shaped by traditions that have travelled across Asia, they are highly local in the way in which they inform the sense of place and yet seem recognisable across centuries of travels and translations. Sayana’s observations resonated with the finding of many scholars who encountered water beings in many different contexts, from ancient Sanskrit sources to Tibetan, Nepali, Bhutanese, Thai contexts and beyond. Most remarkably these water beings seem to have found a new life as the focus of environmental activism dedicated to the protection of particular sites and their waters. This is how stories of water beings that can be found in early Indian Buddhist sources and travelled through many pathways– transplanted in many settings, reframed and transformed in light of pre-existing traditions– ended up resonating with the River Cam. Both spiritual and political, immaterial and material, these water beings became the site of encounter of different traditions of knowledge and engagement with the environment. Lama Dobdon’s ritual and the workshop were just part of a new chapter in a long story of cosmo-political ecologies.

Venerable Lharamba Dobdon Maksarov is preparing offerings for the water beings of the River Cam.   Among many other ingredients it contained some herbal remedies klu sman (Tib.) to heal water-deities’ body and their skin, damaged by raw sewage spills and water pollution.

With the increasing concern in global policy about the management and governance of fresh-water resources and the mitigation of water disasters, MIASU sought to address these challenges from a vantage point that takes on board lessons from post-humanist engagement with the environment. A string of research and impact projects have reflected this approach. For example, the river Selenga (Mongolian: Сэлэнгэ мөрөн; Russian: река Селенга; Chinese: 色楞格河) running from northern Mongolia into Russia’s Lake Baikal (which actually contains up to 40% of the global fresh water) has been the focus of attention from different state and non-state actors, including extensive Chinese economic and political interest. The management of this river, which is the focus  of the ESRC funded Project titled, ‘Resource frontiers: managing water on a trans-border Asian river’, provides an exemplary case study of collisions of different human and non-human perspectives in ways that can be defined as cosmopolitical. Similarly, the project ‘Himalayan connections: melting glaciers, sacred landscapes and mobile technologies in a changing climate’  (funded by the research council of Norway) explored environmental governance in communities affected by climate change related disasters such as GLOFs. Focusing on the ways in which non-human entities can be  engaged with as actors in the socio-political arena, this approach was also used in a variety of research contexts in the recent volume ‘Cosmopolitical Ecologies Across Asia: Places and Practices of Power in Changing Environment edited by Riamsara Kuyakanon, Hildegard Diemberger, and David Sneath (2022) based at MIASU.  

Joint celebration of a ritual for the water beings of the River Cam.

The interdisciplinary two-day workshop that took place at Pembroke College and MIASU addressed the question of water management in Inner Asia with a theoretical focus on ‘religio-hydraulic’ knowledge across Asian belief systems, paying special attention to water beings (water deities –  nāgas (Skt.)  and lus (Tib and Mong.), that embody ideas about non-human powers and relations between species (humans, animals, plants, deities, etc).  The materiality of water manifested in freshwater scarcity, water caused calamities, problems of pollution as well as daily needs emerged as an arena where religion, natural resource extraction, environmental awareness, and nationalism can co-shape narratives and practices involving water beings. Also, anxieties related to environmental changes, growing distrust in bureaucratic solutions of environmental issues, increasing frequency of natural calamities, along with human health concerns (especially after the Covid pandemic breakdown), often involve appealing to the agency of the water beings and their regulatory role in managing watery non-human worlds.  Recent fieldwork across the region, from the Himalayas to Mongolia and Buryatia, therefore, suggests the need for deeper discussion on the growing relevance of water beings for environmental solutions in local communities. This phenomenon requires wider cross regional/cultural comparisons and interdisciplinary expertise from different knowledge sources.   

Making offerings to water-beings of the River Cam.

The workshop, “Water management in Inner Asia: human and non-human actors in placed-based approaches”, aimed to engage multiple publics (– both in the UK further afield), – to explore different Asian settings involving water beings in times of climate change and expanding natural resource extraction (, in what is sometimes defined as Anthropocene), and to develop a broader understanding of a ‘new’ frame of reference involving human and non-human reciprocal sociality in this part of the world.. Methodologically, this event was planned as an experimental workshop to facilitate dialogue between multiple publics beyond academia such as environmental activists, UK government policy officers for Environment (DEFRA), artists, religious practitioners and researchers to re-frame ‘water recovery’ paradigms. It also explored ecological pedagogies in schools by illustrating some of the current activities involving primary schools in different countries. enabling schoolchildren to translate experiences and concerns about climate change and water across different cultural contexts, including the place of spiritual and narrative understandings of landscape.

At the end of the first day, a roundtable, jointly organised with Cambridge 0 and the Cambridge Festival, engaged Professor Charles Kennel (Scripps Institute of Oceanography, USA) in a conversation on water beings and environmental thought in a cross-disciplinary perspective looking at different knowledge paradigms, exploring knowledge action networks and interrogating concepts such as the anthropocene from different vantage points. 

Members of Mongolian community in Cambridge enthusiastically joined the ritual. It is believed that worshipping water-deities brings prosperity, health, and is beneficial for mental health.

We hope that the workshop succeeded in facilitating a wide-ranging dialog across academia and beyond. For example: activists representing CIC Water Sensitive Cambridge are going to collaborate with ven. Lharamba Dobdon Maksarov in restoring chalk streams of Cambridgeshire to include religious actors in their community watery work. From the academic perspective, Hildegard and Sayana  are planning to publish a volume based on the workshop participants’ contributions to explore the significance of water beings in Inner Asia in times of climate change and expanding natural resource extraction.  Meanwhile,  Sayana started a collaboration with the “Water efficiency in faith and diverse communities” Project (based at the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge) to engage with other religious views of water that might contribute to her attempt to develop a new concept of ‘Water-based kinship’. To add to a growing list of -cenes and remembering Donna J. Haraway’s invitation to reflect on the naming of new kinds of creative relations between humans and non-humans alike, which she calls ‘Chthulucene’  (2016b), Sayana is experimenting with the term ‘Lusocene’ (or Nagacene ?). This involves Interrogating  translation processes to  decenter the anthropos and depart from Greco-European cultural and terminological heritage to formulate a term combing globality from different vantage points and region and place based perspectives – a concept that embodies connections (even kin-based proximity) within Inner Asian landscapes with their human and non-human actors.

Hildegard Diemberger is Research Director of  the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit (MIASU, University of Cambridge) and a Fellow of Pembroke College. She has published numerous books and articles on the anthropology and the history of Tibet and the Himalaya as well as on the Tibetan-Mongolian interface, including When a Woman becomes a Religious Dynasty: the Samding Dorje Phagmo of Tibet (2007), and the edited volume Cosmopolitical Ecologies across Asia (2021). Most recently she has co-led (together with Hanna Havnevik and Bhaskar Vira) the interdisciplinary research project:  “Himalayan Connections: Melting glaciers, sacred landscapes and mobile technologies in a Changing Climate”.

Sayana Namsaraeva is Senior Research Associate at the Mongolia & Inner Asia Studies Unit at the University of Cambridge, working on the ESRC funded project ‘Resource frontiers: managing water on a trans-border Asian river’. Throughout her academic career spanning over twenty five  years, her research interests embrace a wide range of topics in Mongolian and China studies, Buryat Diasporas and Kinship, Continental Colonialism and Border Studies, with a particular attention to Innerasian borderlands. In addition to her numerous publications, she co-edited the volume entitled, Trust and Mistrust in the Economies of the China-Russia Borderlands (2018).


Kuyakanon, Riamsara & Hildegard Diemberger, and David Sneath. 2022. Cosmopolitical Ecologies Across Asia: Places and Practices of Power in Changing Environment, Routledge. DOI: 10.4324/9781003036272

Julia Perczel, ‘Extended producer responsibility as ecological thinking’

All images courtesy of the author.

Ecology of waste awareness at the Cambridge market. 

Waste is ecological. So is waste management. This might be counter intuitive as when waste is evoked in ecological terms in common parlance, it is presented as a threat to the ecology. I argue that the apparent contradiction lies in the indeterminacy of waste as a harmful product of capitalist consumer culture and as a visible material substance that draws attention to pollution in nature. Waste at the same time is also a material that straddles uncomfortably the nature/culture divide. To understand its uneven effects across the planet ultimately it requires it to be recast as a ubiquitous material substance that mediates and redraws the relationship with life structured by capitalism.

Making polluters pay for the growing problem of waste through extended producer responsibility (EPR) is one of late-capitalism’s preferred policies to deal with waste. Currently the UK is implementing a new EPR law in packaging to come into effect from 2025. Yet, EPR often has little resemblance to what gets treated as ecology in anthropology. Once one gets down to the nitty-gritties of putting EPR into practice, the observer immediately loses her way in laws, targets, volumes of inorganic material, companies, calculations, machines, and pricing. None of which sounds much like anthropologist’s preferred way to think about ecology. Rather, waste often falls under the remit of studies that look at local or national governance and, even if considered, it is classed under an issue of urban political ecology with more of an attention over who gets to revalue waste in the urban setting (Rademacher 2015; Gidwani 2013).

At the same time, EPR, in as much as it mandates producer brands to raise awareness among consumers, leads to the infinite (re)production of pictures of waste in nature to create evocative images of the detrimental effects of today’s unecological consumer. Perhaps, due to the ubiquity of images as well as the mounting evidence of the geography forming effects and habitat change due to waste it might be high time to refocus anthropological attention on how waste is becoming part of interlocking ecosystems of nature, industry, and business. With such an approach, it might also become possible to start thinking of alternative approaches to waste management that does not harken back to the image of pure unpolluted nature.

Two contrasting images might be used to drive the continuing attraction of the nature/culture dichotomy home:

In 2018, I visited Skomer Island off the Pembrokeshire coast in West Wales to look at puffins. What we ended up looking at were not just the birds but the plastics that puffins, Manx shearwaters, and seagulls collected from far away and carried back to make their nests. Such phenomena become effective in highlighting the devastation caused by plastic, but the inescapable reality now is that plastic and other wastes have now gotten swept up in the vitality of life and became an inextricable part of nature.

The experience appears to be continuous with the one from the following year, on my fieldwork in the dense urban sprawl of northeast Delhi, India. Roaming the streets of the neighbourhood where the e-waste market was located imparted a distinctly ecological experience. E-waste markets across the world as well as in Delhi are often described as toxic hellscapes by outside visitors—researchers of environmental advocacy groups, journalists, environmental practitioners—but locals describe them as a family place (Perczel 2021; 2024). It is also an unlikely site of urban nature, where water canals are said to have acidified to the extent that there are no mosquitos. And encounters with a smellscape of human and animal faeces in the open sewers and emanating from dark, ground-floor rooms indicates the presence of humans, buffaloes, chicken, and goats in the midst of heavily built-up urban sprawl. Urban political ecology often focuses on the use of open spaces, the state of reserves and waterbodies, and the power inequalities, struggles, and exclusions that push particular sections of urban society to live in such polluted environments (Rademacher 2015). Yet, flooding streets, acidified sewage canals, and rotting offal and animal hides in open urban dumps after Bakr Eid celebrations are also manifestations of urban ecology for they reassert the link with the vitality of life in the midst of dead concrete (although for the vitality of concrete see Harvey 2019).

Smellscapes of decomposing offal in an open dump. 

The presence of organic waste in concrete and bitumen worlds and plastic in seabirds’ nests invokes the knee-jerk reaction of “matter out of place”. The phrase is attributed to Mary Douglas who developed it for anthropology in the book Purity and Danger: An analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966). Although Richard Fardon (2013) observed in a curious exercise of tracing misattributions that the adage was in fact a current one in the 19th century but got largely forgotten by the twentieth century when Douglas gave it new life.

The phrase and Douglas’ theory responded to and became influential in organising thought around waste. The idea that waste is waste only in its wrong place, while it would be a valuable object somewhere else is a surprisingly all-pervading one. There have been attempts to decouple conceptions of waste from “dirt”, with Liboiron arguing that even Douglas didn’t think the two were interchangeable (Liboiron 2019; Liboiron and Lepawsky 2022). In fact, waste means that from the essential indeterminacy of things (Alexander and Sanchez 2018), certain materials have been categorised as value and were put in their place, the bin, the dump, the waste processing unit.

Thus, wastes are not out of place in the same way as dirt for they do not by themselves pose a danger to political order. Although they can also do that, as Baviskar’s (2003) notion of “bourgeois environmentalism” illustrates, where middle-class perceptions of cleanliness may become cause for brutal violence against Delhi’s poor who may be forced to defecate in the parks of middle-class neighbourhoods. However, what these notions of cleanliness, environmentalism, and the striving for purity do is to reinforce the notion of pure nature. Thus, Douglas’s argument illuminates why waste as a problem continues to have a powerful hold on the imagination.

This creates a situation where it is hard to talk of waste as anything other than things caught up in human capacities for symbolic valuation (Reno 2014). This means that a wayward plastic back in a forest will be a sign of human artifice as much as the same plastic bag travelling through the recycling process and being re-valued into energy. However, plastic as much as any other substance, whether organic or not, has affordances to enter into relations with a host of forces other than human owing to its material indeterminacy (Gabrys et al. 2013; Alexander and Sanchez 2018). Waste in fact is not only a sign of life (Reno 2014), but it also makes place and becomes a sustainer of life (O’Hare 2019).

On the one hand, waste provides many with livelihoods. But on the other, new geographic formations like the North-Atlantic plastic patch, perhaps the epitome of wastes’ environmental detriment, are also becoming hosts to coastal and oceanic life allowing species to exist in deep sea and travel longer distances (Haram et al. 2021). While this is not to say that such changes to marine life are an innocent process, they indicate the inextricable entanglement of manmade materials with non-human lifeworlds.

The problem with wastes is ostensibly that they are of human origin but end up in nature, or that they are prevented from becoming one with nature because of the human-built environment. Wastes are the result of economic life, consumer desires, and the potency of science to mix substances to the extent that they become inextricable from each other. Even if the wastes are of an animal kind, if it is found “out of nature” in the midst of constructed landscapes like the dense peri-urban sprawl of New Delhi, the problem is defined as “of human processes of valuation, or devaluation”. Material hybrids that cannot be broken down without further human interventions, scientific discoveries, and the reorganisation of social and political life.

Are trees matter out of place in a toxic e-waste market? 

Wastes, thus, seem to reinforce the nature/culture divide. And the root of the seeming contradiction of wastes as ecological may lie in Western thought’s deep-seated acceptance of the divide. Accordingly, wastes, especially human made, are unecological as they leave a detrimental impact on the environment turning up in places where they don’t belong. Still, the arguments against the deep-seated nature/culture rarely are directed towards naturalising the way in which material hybrids are now found in the farthest reaches of the earth. These processes are little different from arguments that emphasise that landscapes of beauty, or or resource extraction, are often also the sites of culture and sacred geographies. The argument thus presupposes a prior existence of pure nature which precedes human interaction, yet facing up to the fact of an irrevocably toxic world is less and less avoidable (Shotwell 2016). It is much rarer to encounter the argument, following Shotwell, that what appears as the epitome of human artifice, permanently changed landscapes as a result of wastes of all kinds—carbon emissions, greenhouse gases of all kinds, plastics and toxics, and other hybrid material—are in fact constituting of the ecology today.

Although EPR may be about reprocessing discarded materials e-wastes, plastics, care tyres, or mattresses, it is also about fundamentally redrawing the links between capitalist mode of production and the environment. It is about reckoning with the fact that capitalism operates in the web of life (Moore 2015). This is one of capitalist environmentalism’s attempts to shape the political economy to adapt to the changing demands of planetary futures.

Countries like India, when attempting to make producers responsible, follow established systems in Europe and if it were to be achieved it would bring the country one step further to the circular economy decoupling production from natural resources. The first legal framework to be put in place was regarding taking responsibility for electronic discards by defining the obligations of each stakeholder and defining their relations towards each other. In the course of a year-long fieldwork, I found that although the aim is to link the effects of production, consumption, and eventually discarding to ecological impact, the day-to-day life of compliance requires bureaucratic enforcement of the law, the creation of documentation, engagement with licensing, and fulfilling legally defined industrial conditions. The sum of these were described by my interlocutors curiously as an “e-waste ecosystem” a phrase that in fact refers to the market through which responsibility is fulfilled. This is a radically different way of imagining ecology from the environmental movement that brought about the need for change in the ecological imagination of capitalism.

Thus, I argue that wastes are not only ecological but they shape local and planetary ecology, similar to how Morton argues in Being Ecological (2018). He shows how the act of turning the ignition key in a car is the way in which most people across the planet engage with ecology. This apparently insignificant individual activity gathers the force of planetary change when millions of people turn on their car at the same time. In a similar way, the engagement with waste, its categorisation, placement, legal arrangements for its management, and processing can have cascading effects and recast human’s and non-human relationships and their environment.

Julia Perczel is an ESRC Research Fellow at the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Her research deals with the question of making profits while striving to save the environment through the ethnographic example of an e-waste startup in Delhi, India. As part of these explorations she had published on representations of toxic places, e-waste as a sci-fi plot, and the practicalities of putting the circular economy in practice.


Alexander, Catherine, and Andrew Sanchez, eds. 2018. Indeterminacy: Waste, Value, and the Imagination. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Baviskar, Amita. 2003. ‘Between Violence and Desire: Space, Power, and Identity in the Making of Metropolitan Delhi’. International Social Science Journal 55: 89–98.

Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Abingdon: Routledge and Keegan Paul.

Fardon, Richard. 2013. ‘Citations out of Place (Respond to This Article at Http://Www.Therai.Org.Uk/at/Debate)’. Anthropology Today 29 (1): 25–27.

Gabrys, Jennifer, Gay Hawkins, Mike Michael, and Mike Michaels. 2013. Accumulation: The Material Politics of Plastic. London: Taylor & Francis Group.

Gidwani, Vinay. 2013. ‘Value Struggles: Waste Work and Urban Ecology in Delhi’. In Ecologies of Urbanism in India: Metropolitan Civility and Sustainability, edited by Anne Rademacher and K. Sivaramakrishnan, 1st ed., 169–200. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Haram, Linsey E., James T. Carlton, Luca Centurioni, Mary Crowley, Jan Hafner, Nikolai Maximenko, Cathryn Clarke Murray, et al. 2021. ‘Emergence of a Neopelagic Community through the Establishment of Coastal Species on the High Seas’. Nature Communications 12 (1): 6885.

Harvey, Penny. 2019. ‘Lithic Vitality: Human Entanglement with Nonorganic Matter’. In Anthropos and the Material, edited by Penny Harvey, Christian Krohn-Hansen, and Knut G. Nustad. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Liboiron, Max. 2019. ‘Waste Is Not “Matter out of Place”’. Discard Studies. 9 September 2019.

Liboiron, Max, and Josh Lepawsky. 2022. Discard Studies: Wasting, Systems, and Power. The MIT Press.

Moore, Jason W. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life : Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London: Verso Books.

Morton, Timothy. 2018. Being Ecological. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

O’Hare, Patrick. 2019. ‘“The Landfill Has Always Borne Fruit”: Precarity, Formalisation and Dispossession among Uruguay’s Waste Pickers’. Dialectical Anthropology 43 (1): 31–44.

Perczel, Julia. 2021. ‘Where Is Toxicity Located? Side Glances through Fieldwork in a Toxic Place’. Anthropology Today 37 (4): 27–30.

———. 2024. ‘E-Waste Is Toxic, but for Whom? The Body Politics of Knowing Toxic Flows in Delhi’. Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space 42 (1).

Rademacher, Anne. 2015. ‘Urban Political Ecology’. Annual Review of Anthropology 44 (Volume 44, 2015): 137–52.

Reno, Joshua Ozias. 2014. ‘Toward a New Theory of Waste: From “Matter out of Place” to Signs of Life’. Theory, Culture & Society 31 (6): 3–27.

Shotwell, Alexis. 2016. Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Editors’ Welcome

Dear Reader,

We welcome you to the 4th edition of the Cambridge University Social Anthropology Society (CUSAS) Magazine, organised by the 2023-24 CUSAS Committee. We have entitled the Easter 2024 edition: ‘Ecologies’. In selecting this focus, we hoped to allow room for a variety of inquiries and contexts of exploration within our Department’s scholarly community.

CUSAS’ vision is of a Department wherein students and staff are exposed to challenging and diverse views which further their anthropological interest and facilitate both academic achievement and social change. The pieces in this edition reflect a variety of definitions of and perspectives on ecologies, while offering new perspectives on how our anthropological contexts stretch and morph the term and challenging how we utilise ecologies within the discipline. 

CUSAS has forefronted our own thinking about ecologies and wanted to present this conversation to our anthropological community. Most notably, Professor Jason Hickel will speak at our annual Strathern Lecture on Thursday, 16 May, 2024. His upcoming discussion is a continuation of his long standing work on ecological economics, global political economy, and inequality best analysed through his works The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions (2017), and Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World (2020). We hope that you all will join us for Jason Hickel’s lecture entitled, “Capitalism, imperialism, and the struggle for development in the 21st century”.

This edition seeks to highlight anthropology’s grappling with ecologies and its capacity to influence self-reflection about our role as researchers and human beings in the Anthropocene, while it postulates how we can move forward.  Professor Mike Degani’s and post-doctoral fellow Julia Perczel’s pieces, included in this edition, reflect on how we can think about responsibility and ethics between the human and our environments during the climate emergency. Also featured in this edition are comments from Dr Hildegard Diemberger and Dr Sayana Namsaraeva as well as an essay by Professor Cymene Howe and Professor Dominic Boyer. Both discuss the implications of extending human-environment relations to reconsider responsible, caring, and responsive research and fieldwork practices.  

We would also like to thank our student contributor, Tarina Franklin, for considering the nuance of ecologies in their own research contexts and for suggesting extensions for anthropological analysis to aid our discipline’s conceptualisation of the term. You can read all the pieces here.

We, the editors, also wanted to use this space to invite more student participation in the CUSAS Magazine. This magazine endeavours to represent the new, complex thoughts within our anthropological community (from undergraduate to tenured professor) and to invite other anthropologists to participate in that conversation. It is a unique and privileged space of collaboration and experimentation where others can engage with your ideas. We encourage students to take advantage of this during the next academic year! On our end, we will review our editorial process to ensure the magazine is engaging and accessible to our student community.

We invite you to read this newest edition of the magazine and to challenge your own notions of ecologies and the term’s value in advancing our discipline.


The CUSAS Magazine Co-Editors

Adaiah Hudgins-Lopez, PhD Social Anthropology

Edurne Sosa El Fakih, PhD Social Anthropology

Adaiah Hudgins-Lopez is a writer, dancer, and creative pursuing a PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. She is a 2021 and 2022 Gates Cambridge Scholar and a member of Trinity College. Her writing and creative work centres Afrofuturist musings, narratives of migration, and explorations of community and movement building. 

Edurne Sosa El Fakih is mostly a stubborn and intense writer pursuing a PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. She is a member of Newnham College and Menca de Leoni Scholarship recipient. Her book, Al borde de un viaje, is a creative project that speaks about uprooting, death, and childhood nostalgia.

Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer, ‘Glaciers and Geohuman Relations’

All images courtesy of the authors.

Figure 1: top of Ok mountain in snow

For seven hundred years or so, Ok Glacier lived atop Ok mountain. There, it accumulated snow and ice; it also crawled, not quickly, but persistently, down the northern face of the now-extinct shield volcano where it made its home. Okjökull—its formal name since “jökull” is the Icelandic word for glacier and Ok was the name given to this constellation of ice way back in the time of settlement, 1200 years ago—was the smallest of Iceland’s named glaciers. Nonetheless, it appeared on every glacier map of the country going back several hundred years. Some say that Ok Glacier sticks in the memory because of its funny name, ‘Ok’. The word means ‘burden’ in old Icelandic and “Ok” reads, of course, to Icelanders and others as the English word ‘OK’. 

We found Ok, in some ways by accident, but also in the para-accidental way that anthropological research projects can sometimes yield surprises, wonder and revelation. Our research in Iceland had begun with questions of political parody (Boyer 2013) and then turned to questions about the rapid loss of a natural form, namely ice and how that might be shaping social and cultural futures (Howe 2019). Ice is not only nominal in the country’s identity, it is also a material form that has conditioned life on the island nation for as long as humans have inhabited it. About 10% of the country’s surface is covered in ice, in glaciers like the massive Vatnajökull ice cap, and if one were to spread all the ice of Iceland across its surface, the island would be under a thick glaze of ice 2 meters thick. 

We discovered Ok in our search for glaciers and the people who lived near them, to find out how they were influenced by them, the people who had thoughts and feelings about the 11 billion tons of ice being lost every year due to climate warming. And there was Ok, on the map, as “he”1 had long been. Charmed by the glacier’s name, we set out to uncover more about this little glacier that no one had yet mentioned to us. We soon discovered a very brief report – just under eighty words total – in an English-language magazine. There, Icelandic glaciologist Oddur Sigurðsson announced that Okjökull had lost so much of its icy mass that it could no longer be classified as a glacier. It was a brief obituary, of sorts. 

Figure 2: image of memorial plaque for Okjökull

We felt that Iceland losing its first named glacier was a rather important story, one that deserved more recognition, especially outside of Iceland. Over the course of a month in the summer of 2017, we were able to interview Icelandic politicians, academics, artists, hikers, farmers and even a priest for a short documentary film that was eventually titled, Not Ok: a little movie about a small glacier at the end of the world (2018). In the course of making the film we spent a lot of time talking to Icelanders about how best to make meaning of their disappearing cryosphere and those conversations led in turn to the idea to create a memorial for Okjökull and stage a funeral in his memory. The memorial plaque and funeral went viral in the hot summer of 2019, which through this odd twist of fate led to Ok getting a longer obituary from The Economist, their first ever for a non-human (2019).

From one standpoint, imagining the expiration of a glacier as a death and the appropriate response to that death as a funeral and obituary, might seem ridiculous. But from many other standpoints, the expiration of a glacier is a death: a death of the ecological systems that glaciers maintain, a death of the histories that may be lost as material traces melt and wash away, a death of a part of world heritage, or in some cases, and in some cosmological contexts, the death of a cherished kin member or earth being (Paerregaard 2023). 

While Icelandic folk traditions do not take mountains or glaciers as sentient beings per se, there has been a long tradition of belief in the sentient occupation and guardianship of mountains and rocks by spirits and non-human beings like huldufólk in the near-human landscape, as Gísli Pálsson has described (2020: 35–36). In a commensurate way, as we see with Karine Gagné’s work (2019), local people may sense a ‘broken bond’ between wounded environments and human responsibilities and commitments to them. Or, as David Anderson points out, the social relationships between humans and non-humans, particularly those rooted in a specific place, can be said to be existing in ‘a sentient ecology’ (2000: 46) even if that ecology does not include ascribing vitality to (normatively) non-living entities. 

As the world faces unprecedented losses in the natural world—from glaciers and forests to rivers and entire ecosystems—we believe that it is important to acknowledge the continuum between sentient lives and inanimate entities. That is, as anthropologists who work in and across socio-natural environments, we think it is critical to draw collective attention to the fact that all biotic life is both imperiled by the non-living world as well as entirely dependent on it. In this reciprocal relationship between the living and nonliving, and in trying to understand the blur between them, we have come to think of this continuum as one of “geohuman relations.” 

Geohuman relations are an attunement to the geohuman – those moments of contact and relationship, recognition and transformation, between human communities and the earth system. 

In her formative work, Isabel Stengers (2010) theorised how ‘cosmopolitics’ – the intimate intertwining of humans and non-humans, and the inseparability of a cosmos from a politics – serves as a challenge to global Northern perceptions of transcendental personhood and the positioning of ‘culture’ over ‘nature’. With the analytic and lived possibilities of the geohuman, we have also found many influences across a wealth of ethnographic material, including the diversity and extent of ‘sentient landscapes.’ 

Sentient landscapes are bodies of earth, air and water that demonstrate agency and in various ways come ‘alive’ with subjectivity and authority. 

Anthropologists, especially those working with Indigenous peoples, have long recognised the salience, and sentience, of non-human entities within cosmological systems. Elizabeth Povinelli, for instance, narrates how aboriginal peoples identify the powers of Two Women Sitting Down, a sacred site that most settler colonials would call ‘mountains’ (2016: 49–50). Ana Mariella Bacigalupo (2021) and Georgina Drew (2020) both demonstrate, in very different settings, how land and water forms function as ethical actors in the collective work of environmental politics. In Earth Beings (2015), Marisol de la Cadena illustrates how sentient mountains participate in community rituals and protests. And, in the work of Eduardo Kohn (2013) we find forests actively negotiating their place within Indigenous Amazonian environmental activism. 

Legal cases, under the rubric of ‘Rights of Nature’ have also signaled how non-human entities such as rivers (like the Whanganui in Aotearoa, New Zealand) and glaciers (like Gangotri and Yamunotri glaciers in the Himalayas) have achieved the rights of personhood: a legal standing that, in theory, facilitates their protection from the harms of pollution, development, and runaway climate change. 

These examples provide perspective on what constitutes sentience, or ‘vital matter’ (Gagné and Drew 2024), and how that can be accounted for within communities and across legal regimes. Sentient places such as these also draw our attention to the antagonistic, and obstinate, conceit of human exceptionalism as a settler liberal political project that elevates human needs and survivance over all other vital forms and, of course, over ‘non- living’ entities as well. As Povinelli (2016) has rightly noted, there is a predisposition within Euroamerican philosophy to focus on the binary of (human) life and death, and to valorise life over non-life. 

In our work, we have been aiming to disassemble the binary between life and non-life further by questioning that division as a dual, twofold form—that is, the duality of ‘living’ vs ‘non-living’. Instead, we are interested in the experiential and discursive continuum between sentience, liveliness, and inanimate entities. The equivocations between the living and the dead, the vital and inanimate, is, we find, an especially generative space of reflection for the Anthropocene age when all living beings depend—as they always have—on non-living matter. The difference now, is that we also collectively face unprecedented challenges for species survival in the disruption of the earth system.

We hope that an analytic of geohuman relations may prove helpful to efforts like the Rights of Nature to accelerate movement away from the long history of extractivist violence and toward an ecologically attuned ethics of care and respect.


  1. Here we are adopting Icelandic linguistic gender conventions for glacier (a masculine noun); we are also following Oddur Sigurðsson’s lead in using pronouns to describe the glacier as ‘he’. We are not suggesting that Oddur (or other Icelanders) are attributing sentience or vitalism to the glacier itself. See also Pálsson (2020) on earth guardianship in Iceland historically and in the present. 

Cymene Howe is Professor of Anthropology and Founding Co-Director of the Science and Technology Studies Program at Rice University. Her most recent books include Ecologics: Wind and Power in the Anthropocene (Duke 2019), Anthropocene Unseen (Punctum 2020) and Solarities: Elemental Encounters and Refractions (Punctum 2023). She was recently awarded The Berlin Prize for transatlantic dialogue in the arts, humanities, and public policy and her current research centers on the social impacts of glacial loss in the Arctic region and sea level rise in coastal communities. 

Dominic Boyer is an anthropologist, media maker and co-founder of the field of Energy Humanities. His most recent book is No More Fossils (U Minnesota Press, 2023), a discussion of the fossilized legacy of fossil fuels and the coming transition from petroculture to electroculture. In addition to serving on the Board of Governors of the Rice Sustainability Institute, he co-directs Rice University’s Center for Coastal Futures and Adaptive Resilience (CFAR) and will direct its forthcoming Social Design Lab (SDL).


Anderson, D. G. 2000. Identity and ecology in Arctic Siberia: the number one reindeer brigade. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bacigalupo, A. M. 2021. Subversive cosmopolitics in the Anthropocene: on sentient landscapes and the ethical imperative in northern Peru, in E. Berry (ed.), Climate politics and the power of religion,176–205. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Boyer, D. 2013. Simply the Best: Parody and Political Sincerity in Iceland. American Ethnologist 40(2): 276-287.

de la Cadena, M. 2015. Earth beings: ecologies of practice across Andean worlds. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Drew, G. 2020. River dialogues: Hindu faith and the political ecology of dams on the Sacred Ganga. Tempe, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

Gagné, K. 2019. Caring for glaciers: land, animals, and humanity in the Himalayas. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

Gagné, K and G. Drew. 2024. Vital Matter: Icy Liveliness in the Anthropocene. Social Anthropology/Anthropologie sociale 32(1): 1-12.

Howe, C. 2019. Sensing Asymmetries in Other-than-human forms. Science, Technology, & Human Values 44(5): 900-910.

Kohn, E. 2013. How forests think: toward an anthropology beyond the human. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Paerregaard, K. 2023. Andean Meltdown: A Climate Ethnography of Water, Power, and Culture in Peru. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Pálsson, G. 2020. Down to earth: a memoir. Earth, Milky Way: punctum books.

Povinelli, E. 2016. Geontologies: a requiem to late liberalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Stengers, I. 2010. Cosmopolitics II. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

The Economist. 2019. The last of ice. 

Michael Degani, ‘Dwelling in the Climate Emergency’

In this brief essay, I want to sketch how developments in architecture and design are exploring what it is to dwell in the climate emergency. Dwelling is a term derived from Martin Heidegger (1971) and thus has inevitably kitschy overtones, though a range of thinkers have worked to peel off his dangerous nostalgia for farmhouses and old stone bridges and retrieve the existential insight at its core (Malpas 2021; Harries 1998). Ultimately to dwell is to be responsive to the place and situation we find ourselves caught up in, in all its limits and possibilities. Or as Karsten Harries (1998: 209) puts it, sometimes “we dream of huts, sometimes of palaces, sometimes of intimate shelters that shut out the outside, sometimes of tents open to the forest and its animals.” In this way architecture is fundamentally ethical. It strives to capture what it is to be responsive to a given stretch of earth and sky, at a given point in history.

In the climate emergency, these strivings lead us away from finished forms and towards the ‘hidden abode of production’—of process and material. The built environment comprises nearly 42% of all global emissions (Architecture 2030). While roughly 27% of this figure comes from buildings’ energy consumption, their embodied carbon—that is, the 15% of emissions involved extraction, processing, transportation, and construction—is substantial.  A “quadrivium” (Jarzombek 2019) of steel, glass, concrete, and plastic burns copious amounts of fossil fuel across byzantine global supply chains. Building in this “oil vernacular” (Material Cultures 2022: 74) drives global heating as well as the myriad geosocial sacrifice zones of the Anthropocene—open pit mines, endless wasteyards, and cancer alleys. The architectural image of our time, Daniel Barber (2023) suggests, is “the sealed curtain wall tower in an overheated city with a struggling electric grid, in a context where heatwaves are managed exclusively by air-conditioning.” A tomb with a view. At end of life, its materials defy reuse or recycling, elaborately glued and preserved in a petrochemical baroque.

A growing number of architects and engineers have begun to wrestle with their status as a critical relay in this extractive economy. Through associations like the Carbon Leadership Forum, Architecture 2030, and Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN), to name just a few, they are attempting to rethink what it will mean to dwell in an era of climate change, and after the oil vernacular. As one engineer declared, “it’s absolutely outrageous that an architect goes out and buys locally grown tomatoes at the supermarket, gets on their bike to work and thinks they are an environmentally conscious person while designing a concrete or steel-frame building. Architects and engineers are the ones making decisions, so why don’t they engage with this?” (Hurst 2019). 

Weightless Ecological Modernism

To understand why, until recently, they haven’t, it is worth sketching out a bit of history. Operational emissions—the emissions required to light, heat or cool a building—have been improving since the 1970s. These technical advances were spurred by oil shocks and fears of energy dependence, as well as a growing environmental consciousness. But they were also rooted in military-industrial research around the “cabin ecology” of spaceflight, with its cybernetic regulation of inputs and outputs, exemplified in the geodesic domes of Buckminster Fuller’s “spaceship earth” (Anker 2010). Today spaceships proliferate—from the “spaceship in the desert” that is the UAE’s Masdar City (Günel 2019) to the various escape pods of the tech billionaire class. It is no coincidence that Elon Musk is a champion of both Mars colonization and electrical vehicles. Both are quintessential examples of a kind of weightless ecological modernism.

By the 2000s, there was a renewed recognition that our great many spaceships depend on externalizing the socioecological costs of their production (Brand and Wissen 2021). A version of this discussion played out amongst architects and engineers too (Architecture 2030). As efficiency rises, the embodied emissions of materials take up an increasing share of a building’s overall carbon footprint, and they are more damaging because of where they occur in time. Operational emissions may be larger in aggregate, but they are also spread out over the life of the building. Insofar as we must reduce atmospheric carbon now, in the next ten years, this initial burp of “upfront” construction emissions can no longer be politely ignored. New builds may be energy efficient, and, so the theory goes, that efficiency might pay off its upfront carbon investment after seventy years. The reality is that we are greenlighting, in the thick of a climate crisis, so many concrete boxes with high-emission petrochemical foam insulation that will be demolished in thirty.

For anthropologists, it would not be hard to render this problem in Bourdieuan or even Heideggerian terms. In effect, a new build may talk a good ‘sustainability’ game, but its body—the very materials of its construction—betrays a carbon-dense mode of dwelling in the world. Like our own unreflective habits, embodied carbon is in some sense the ‘deepest’ part of the building. And in a context of the climate crisis, it might even be said to be the ‘truth’ of a building. Crises are often tests where we are forced to see what we are ‘really made of,’ or in this case what buildings are really made of.

The Soil Vernacular

There was always another tradition of 1970s-era environmental thought running alongside that of spaceship earth. It included EF Schumacher, Ivan Illich, and second-order cyberneticists like Gregory Bateson. Anthony Galluzzo (2023) has given them the inspired name “Critical Aquarians.” The design wing of this tradition embraced what we might call a “soil vernacular,” emphasizing local, climatically appropriate materials (adobe, straw, cob, and hemp) and low-tech construction methods that sought to embody the principles of community and sufficiency (Narath 2024; Harkness 2011). Today, an increasing number of architects, designers, and companies are turning to this tradition, both as a critique of the oil vernacular, and as a way to repair some of its climate harms.

On a windy spring day this year, I gathered with about thirty builders, botanists, students, retired school teachers, and entrepreneurs to tour the “Flat House” of Margent Farms. Just north of Cambridge, designed by Paloma Gormley of the London firm Practice Architecture, the three bedroom house is essentially built from hemp grown right on the property. The structure is comprised of prefabricated frames of UK sourced timber infilled with shiv (the inner woody pulp of the hemp plant) mixed with lime. It is clad in shingled panels of hemp’s fibrous exterior mixed with sugar resin from agricultural waste and thermally pressed. The result is a frankly stunning sensorial calm, regulating humidity, temperature, and air quality without any mechanical ductwork. This “truth to materials” model joins earth and world in a way that might speak to Heidegger’s poetic sensibilities. Looking out over the windswept farmland, the owner remarked to us that using the shiv for the infill and its exterior fibers for the cladding was “kind of like putting the plant back together.” 

At the same time, the structure is a machine for fighting climate change. Growing thick and tall on Margent’s field, the hemp crop sucked carbon out of the air. Packed and pressed, that carbon is now safely sequestered in the dwelling.1  At the end of life, it will be available to be mulched and placed back in the hemp fields as fertilizer. Its model of “farm to building” thus seeks to realize a regenerative architecture that, at scale, can act as a net carbon drawdown. In short, where the oil vernacular turns on the radical externalization of its environment, the soil vernacular sutures. 

Hempcrete wall and window of Norwegian style “stilt house” hut on Margent Farms, a companion student project to Flat House. Photo by Author.

Supply Threads

Tenuous and delicate, these regenerative threads are always at risk of getting severed by the political-economy of extraction. One example is the increasing popularity of mass timber amongst developers, which slots into existing construction techniques and can create beautiful, chalet-like skyscrapers. And yet like biofuels, carbon reporting on mass timber often does not account for the emissions associated with land degradation (King and Magwood 2022: 71). Moreover, even if there is net carbon drawdown, there may also be deleterious effects on biodiversity—razing old growth for plantations is to literally miss the forest for the trees. A true “decolonization of buildings” begins with soil health (Reversing Climate Change 2021). And it must be buttressed by a holistic approach to ecological accounting, which is vulnerable to everything from carbon reductionism to outright manipulation. 

In this spirit, supply chains (or perhaps ‘threads’) are key to making ‘natural building’ more than a series of bourgeois vanities or hippie homesteads. Material Cultures, the research arm of Practice Architecture, has worked with stakeholders in Yorkshire to model a “circular biobased construction” economy with detailed analyses of carrying capacity (Islam et al. 2021). Others have proposed to manufacture housing material from agricultural waste streams such as pith, stalk, or coconut husks, as Mae-Ling Lokko has explored in Ghana (Lokko and Eglash 2017). Since 2016, the Lower Sioux Indian Community has operated a hempcrete farm and manufacture facility on its land to provide housing for its own tribal members, part of their “commitment to sovereignty and self-determination” (Nelson 2024). Getting the materials right involves breaking the hegemony of global supply chains, and the voluntaristic model of individualized pledges to ‘do better’ they enforce.

This challenge is sharpest in the question of retrofits. It is widely recognized that ‘the greenest building is the one that already exists.’ One logical conclusion, however, is a moratorium on new construction, an idea recently proposed and publicly debated by ACAN (2023), and challenging to an industry whose raison d’etre is to build. I have come to think of this as architecture’s ‘writing culture’ moment. In truth, the term covers subtle proposals for democratic control over what gets built and for whom, and for a more collaborative culture that blurs the boundary between architect, engineer, and public. Rather than tectonic Randian heroes who will their vision into being, at least some architects are reconceiving themselves as “spatial therapists” (Minkjan 2019), “caretakers or repairmen” (Alter 2022) or even “ancestors” (Architects Declare 2024).

Taken together, these shifts in construction and materials sketch out a particular vision of what it will be to dwell this century. It competes with any number of others: from fully automated luxury communism, to green growth, to climate fascism. Each visiondreams of what it should build, whether underground titanium bunkers, glass domed islands, or timber skyscrapers. Critical Aquarianism too has its own architectural cosmograms—a ‘hempen homespun’ is one such. But so are existing buildings in the oil vernacular, perhaps just lined with pith, bathed in clay paint, and clad in biogenic fiber. They might take our weightless ecological modernism and help bring it back down to earth.


  1. Concrete manufactures like to point out that such materials will eventually emit at the end of life if they are burned or left to rot in the landfill. Yet this misses, as discussed above, the important time value of using such materials; emissions avoided now are worth more than those avoided later. Moreover, given the decay rate of atmospheric carbon, temporarily stored carbon, past a certain point, is a net drawdown (King and Magwood 2022: 48-50). 

Michael Degani is Assistant Professor of Environmental Anthropology in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, and Juliet Campbell Fellow in Social Anthropology at Girton College, researching energy, infrastructure, and design in Africa and beyond. He is the author of The City Electric: Infrastructure and Ingenuity in Postsocialist Tanzania (Duke University Press 2022), an ethnography of a national power grid.


ACAN. 2023. “Should there be a moratorium on new construction”? Debate held at Central St. Martins, London. 15 November.

Alter, L. 2022. “This anonymous manifesto outlines how architects can design for degrowth.” Treehugger. 9 August.

Anker, P. 2010. From Bauhaus to ecohouse: A history of ecological design. Louisiana State University Press.

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