PhD Alumnus David Bond on the History of “The Environment” as a Political Category

In a matter of decades, political and scientific debates concerning the environment have generally moved from the margins to the center of public life. But our collective understanding of what constitutes “the environment” has changed significantly during that same period.

The notion of “the environment” has a specific and, in many ways, surprising history—despite the fact that it is a fairly recent conceptual invention. Bennington College Professor and New School for Social Research anthropology PhD alumnus David Bond studies this history of our present. Straddling the lines between anthropology, climate science, and critical theory, Bond’s work helps unpack not only what we know about the environment, but also how we came to know the environment. In this context, he pays particular attention to the role that environmental disasters bring the environment to the center of public debate.

Troubled by the injustice and racism he saw in the world, and moved by the desire to do something about it, Bond initially went to college to study sociology. He thought that sociology would be the best lens through which to grapple with the issues that motivated him. Bond was still on that path when he arrived at the New School for Social Research as a master’s student in sociology. Surprisingly, it was a course taught by Willy Brandt Distinguished Professor of Anthropology Ann Stoler that most marked his experience.

“Whatever she was doing,” he said, “I wanted to be a part of it.” Bond explained: “Ann was grappling with things in a way I’d never seen before, pulling out the tensions that animate our present with an incisive critical focus and clear political implication. That’s what I wanted to be a part of.”

Attracted by the foment of new work unfolding in the Anthropology Department, Bond decided to pursue his Ph.D. there. For Bond, anthropology at The New School is not so much “a venerable discipline, as much as a really useful set of tools to examine the present and to write urgent histories of our present, in all that that implies and commits one to.” He added that he also appreciated the department’s insistence that students “take seriously the critical and creative capacities with which people lead their lives.”

Bond has just published a paper in the journal Comparative Studies in Society and History concerning how the US empire of oil offshored crucial hydrocarbon infrastructure to the Caribbean to avoid rising labor and environmental concerns, and the unexpected role those leaky refineries had in bringing new attention to the ecology of mangroves. . In January, Bond also organized and edited an online forum at Cultural Anthropology, providing a space for anthropologists to respond to the rise of Trumpism “as a political present” in the United States and its implications for critical theory. He is expanding his introduction to the forum into a full-length essay while finishing a book manuscript based on his New School dissertation, which tracked the emergence of the category of “the environment” during the BP spill of 2010.

When it comes to the current state of the discipline of anthropology, and how his work contributes to it, Bond emphasized the importance of ethnography. “It’s a truism that ethnographic insights are lacking in our public discourse,” he said. For Bond, insights recovered from this kind of research represent insights into the most looming and complicated problems facing our world today. He added: “We really have to reorient and recommit ourselves to thinking about those problems with people. Ethnography promises a different kind of insight.” Bond’s focus on ethnography truly comes through in the work on the BP oil spill, during which he followed government officials to several town halls with local residents in the direct aftermath of the spill. Repeatedly, Bond witnessed residents raise concerns about their health, only to have these concerns waved away by the officials, who preferred to focus on damage to property and to wildlife. “The environment was defined, in the aftermath of the disaster, in a way that excluded public health concerns,” Bond explained. “It excluded a lot of voices that otherwise had very legitimate complaints that were very easily connected to the spilled oil.”

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, he found that the conceptual questions that he was asking in his research were being asked as practical questions by people living through disasters. “From a distance, it may seem like the environment is a stable thing, and the spilled oil is another thing, and then they collide,” Bond said, “But in this case both were being defined in relationship to one another as the disaster unfolded. Each took forceful and consequential form during the event, even as the resulting categories were projected backwards to define and measure the disaster.”

Pivoting to his current work, Bond described his collaboration with University of Oklahoma Assistant Professor of Anthropology Lucas Bessire and University of Alaska Fairbanks Assistant Research Professor Stacy Rasmus. The trio was recently awarded a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct a new multi-year community-driven study on the “ends of oil” in Alaska. “Contemporary Alaska becomes a really interesting and consequential place to ask questions of how oil ends,” Bond said, pointing to the fact that Alaska has long been subsidized by oil revenues, but at this point the oil reserves are running out. He elaborated, “It is unclear how the ways communities have organized themselves will survive without those revenues. At the same time the environmental fallout from that oil is having an outsized impact on the far north, where permafrost is melting and the coasts are eroding.” Many rural communities are thus caught in a pincer, between increasing ill effects and dwindling support. For many, the Alaskan far north might feel removed, but in this specific case, Bond suggested we might find an image of humanity’s future.

Most broadly, Bond’s work tracks the way in which terms such as “the environment,” so crucial to our public discourse, are constantly morphing. This becomes especially salient when we think back to the origins of the term’s usage in public discourse. “The environment itself, as a domain of responsibility, when it first emerged, carried with it a fairly radical promise of emboldened rights and responsibilities,” said Bond, “Yet very quickly it became less about justice than about moralizing and managing an ahistorical, moderately contaminated, and exceedingly technical understanding of legitimate life. The distance the environment has achieved between ordinary experiences and voices is an achievement. The distance that the environment has from the concerns of everyday life is the result of a tremendous amount of labor. This labor of disregard is what my work tries to explain.”

“I take it that the promise of the environment in the late 60s and early 70s was that it offered a new way for workers and citizens to confront the negative excess of petro-chemical capitalism and nuclear statecraft,” Bond said. “It was a way of thinking past easy distinctions between nature and society and into an avenue of committed confrontation that could have really renegotiated the place of profit and war in the United States.” The radical potential of the environment that propelled unions, students, scientists, and citizens did not last however. “I see the consolidation of the environment as a history of slowly and systematically disabling the possibility of that confrontation,” Bond argued. Instead, the environment became a forum for muted negotiations between the state and industry, a “Cold War of technocratic calculation with no meaningful place for confrontation.”

What went wrong? What enabled the wearing away of this category’s political bite?

Bond answered: “In many ways, the early concept was a direct assault on the source of a problem. Today it’s become a way of managing the problem. It sets acceptable limits and thresholds and then polices those limits rather than inquiring into causes. As if that is the terrain of politics.” For Bond, the problem is that this approach doesn’t just deactivate genuine confrontation; rather it also alienates everyday people from meaningful participation. “You need a team of lawyers and scientists to navigate these regulations, if you hope to contest anything,” he said. In this way, average people are increasingly unable to participate in the making of the norms that are supposed to protect them. This, he argued, “leaves citizens far, far behind.”

In a certain sense, one could look at this history as an arms race between the corporations and the state, in which each side tries to legitimate itself through its own science. The way this unfolded is quite ironic. Upon the founding of the EPA, an emphasis was placed on the agency being able to listen to the concerns of the public. Quite quickly, various industries figured out they could also advance their concerns under this rubric. “For the first decade or so, the EPA responded to the concerns of communities and citizens,” Bond said. “But slowly it was opened up to a wider range of interests, including those of industry.”

Bond also relays how, just as was the case with tobacco, industries declined to have a debate in public, and chose instead to undermine the science that cast their products in negative light. “There is a move away from debating policy, towards trying to produce the kind of science that would prevent a clear conclusion from being reached,” Bond said, adding that, “As that happened, the science of toxic exposures got more and more complicated.”

Reflecting on the particularity of his methodological approach, Bond cited The New School for Social Research, where learned “to ask what advances the interests of the state, capitalism, or empire.” He cautioned that this is not to say that only one of these interests is effective in any case, but that asking this sort of questions allows for insights into our present, whatever the specific concern may be. Bond illustrated the point: “In the BP research, the state was the main actor, in the recent paper on mangroves in the Caribbean, empire was the key register.” For Bond, these three registers most usefully direct critique.

Combining his passion for getting back to the grassroots with his position as a professor, Bond recently teamed up with two scientists at Bennington College to offer a course on a pollutant called PFOA, which was recently discovered to be affecting the college’s neighbors. Having decided to open the course to the public, Bond explained that, “We had teachers, mothers, nurses, local journalists […] all the people that needed to get up to speed on this contaminant that they now had to know about.” The professors took questions and concerns from the community and used those as the basis for the research questions being investigated in the classroom. In this way, the concerns of the community, rather than the state or industry, could serve as the guide for scientific work.  Bond chuckled as he said, “at a liberal arts college, one of the things we do well is teach. So why not use that teaching as a public resource in a moment of toxic uncertainty?”