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.”