Category: Research

An Alberta fieldnote

For the past week, I have been in the province of Alberta – the one in Canada – doing some fieldwork on a couple of bushfire (or, here, ‘wildfire’) projects. The first is an extension of a previous project funded the BNHCRC, involving case studies of areas where natural hazard management agencies have used science to reform how they measure and manage risk. One place we looked at previously, for example, was the Barwon-Otway area in southwest Victoria – the one in Australia – where bushfire managers were using a computer program that simulates variously severe bushfires in order to: a) map the level of ‘risk’ out there in the landscape, and; b) understand how things like prescribed burning were impacting that risk (or not). Now, thanks to some funding from the Alberta government, some colleagues and I are working with wildfire managers in Lac La Biche and Edmonton, discussing how they are attempting to do something similar by mapping ‘wildfire hazard’ (meaning: the potential for fire) against ‘values and assets’ (meaning: things deemed publicly important) in the Lac La Biche Forest Area. In both of these cases, as in others we have studied, what may look like a technical exercise in dry calculation is actually also a political and social exercise, where practitioners improvise and make choices about what can be measured, what should be measured, and whose opinion matters. To revisit some Ranciere, it’s a matter of what counts and how it is made to count.

Lac La Biche County, to put it briefly, is a frontier of oil, timber and pastoral extractivism. The northern and eastern part of county are dotted with large oil sands projects, tapped into the Athabasca and Cold Lake oil fields using the steam-assisted gravity drainage (or ‘SAGD‘) process (some photos of projects here). First surveyed in 1848, there was no mining of these sands until 1967 and prospecting and extraction did not really ramp up until the 1980s, and then again after 2001. As Lorna Stefanick points out, events such as Nigeria’s civil war, conflict in Iraq, and hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico helped turn ‘previously prohibitively expensive’ energy options like oil sands into ‘an attractive alternative’ to oil from the Middle East and elsewhere. Development of the oil sands was aided, too, by the perception in the USA that Albertan oil was both ‘domestic’ and (comparatively?) ‘ethical’ (for more I suggest Shrivastava and Stefanick’s OA collection, and Laurie Adkin’s collection). Now, Alberta is a ‘petro-province,’ with approximately 30 percent of its GDP, 70 percent of its exports, and over a third of government revenue coming directly from the oil and gas sector.

What does this mean for wildfire management? For one, it means that there is an enormous amount of above-ground private infrastructure weaving through the forests of Lac La Biche County, much of which has been built in the past decade. Second, these same forests are now host to an enormous but ephemeral workforce, sweeping in to build new pipelines and then sweeping out, leaving only very small maintenance crews. Whereas Lac La Biche County has an estimated resident population around 9,000 people, just one SAGD project ‘workcamp’ (as they’re called) can be as large as 16,000 people or, at another moment, a few hundred people. These camps can be self-contained towns – with post offices and transnational chains such as Starbucks – their populations expanding and contracting with the pulse of international oil investment. Unsurprisingly, it is very hard for others – such as wildfire managers – to know at any one time how many people are present, and therefore how many lives are at risk in a given wildfire event. This is in some ways a data problem, as it is possible that in some future system wildfire managers would have better surveillance of their populations. But there is a more subtle political question here, which is about the extent to which these camps are ‘public’ assets, worthy of protection by government agencies? The 2016 Fort McMurray fires, north of Lac La Biche County, interrupted extraction from the Athabasca field, with an estimated financial impact somewhere in the region of CAD$10 billion (roughly 3-4% of Alberta’s GDP). Given the potential financial impact of a major wildfire, and that Alberta’s oil economies are widely understood as a ‘public good,’ the big question is where should wildfire agencies place these camps in amongst their many priorities?


Below, the Lac La Biche Fire Centre.



Short interview on The Pantograph Punch

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with my friend Joseph Nunweek about Wild Articulations, or ‘about the book’s origins, approaching a deeply local matter as a transplanted Kiwi, and knowing when to stop’. The Pantograph Punch, for those who do not know it, is a great Aotearoa-based arts and culture website that also puts on various events from time to time.

As it says at the end of the piece, if you’re in Melbourne, you can head to the book’s Melbourne launch at the Institute for Postcolonial Studies in North Melbourne on Tuesday 8 April. It’ll feature a panel discussion with myself, Chris Healy, Cameo Dalley and Jon Altman.



Review of Elizabeth Povinelli’s Geontologies

A short while ago I drafted a review of Elizabeth Povinelli’s most recent book, Geontologies: a requiem to late liberalism (Duke University Press, 2016). The final review will appear soon in The Australian Journal of Anthropology but, in the meantime, I am posting a clean draft here. Beth’s work has been a huge influence on my own, and I have had the fortune to review another book of hers before (Economies of Abandonment review here), so I was happy to get this opportunity to have a concerted think about her recent book. Review below:

Geontologies is the ‘last chapter’ of work begun by Povinelli in 1984 and previously presented in Labor’s Lot (1993).[1] Despite this context, the author does not see this as a return to ‘producing ethnographic texts’. Rather, her project is now figured as an analysis of how ‘late liberal power’ appears as it is encountered from the perspective of the Karrabing media collective, a ‘supermajority Indigenous group’ and in the northwest Northern Territory (NT) (p. 23). This is a new trajectory, but one still pursued through the critiques developed in Povinelli’s previous texts, namely how settler liberalism elides ‘certain violences’ through the attribution and distribution of social failure (2002, p. 7) and how its formations of tense and eventfulness are used to dissipate the ‘ethical and political demand’ of alter-agents such as Karrabing on the dominant order (2011, p. 30).

Drawing on a growing number of Karrabing films and media texts, Geontologies presents two parallel lines of inquiry. The first grapples with Foucault’s theorisation of liberal governance as biopolitics in order to launch a speculative reframing of the governance of difference. Increasingly, Povinelli suggests, contemporary late liberalism is not ordered according to biopolitical differentiations between life and death but geopolitical ones between life (bios) and nonlife (geos). That said, Geontologies is not a historical project and little of it is devoted to thinking through how or why geopolitics came about. The point is that the present situation is organised around the distribution of all ‘existents’ according to familiar dynamics of tense and eventfulness. Just like Karrabing members, Two Women Sitting Down – a rock dreaming at Bootu Creek in the central NT destroyed by a mining company in the pursuit of manganese – is governed according to forms of pasts and futurity.

This brings us to the book’s second, and more extensive, line of inquiry, namely the ‘Karrabing analytics’ or epistemologies employed by Karrabing members. This is an ethnographic enterprise, despite the aforementioned disclaimer, though one marked with moments of refusal and with a non-ethnographic end. Certainly, Karrabing members’ grasp of the lively and a lifeless are represented, and clearly differ from that of Australian settler law, they are present in order to demonstrate ‘the cramped [theoretical] space of manoeuvre’ within which they operate (p. 26). Unlike in Povinelli’s previous texts, though, the interlocutors here are less the managers of the settler state than they are the doyens of biopolitics (Agamben), new materialism (Bennett), object-oriented ontologies (Morton and Holbraad), speculative realisms (Meillassoux), and informational capital.

This second strand is the source of both the book’s most notable analyses and equivocations. For example, Povinelli delineates the extent to which many of academia’s theoretical preoccupations are either irrelevant or counterproductive to Karrabing analytics. The fixation of new materialists and others on the irruptive event and vibrancy reiterates ‘the discourse and strategy of geontopower’ (p. 54), or, alternately, restages ‘the call in liberal recognition’ to recognise the other’s sameness (p. 130). Meanwhile, the ‘speculative games’ of object-oriented ontologies and speculative realism participate in ‘crushing’ Karrabing by disavowing interpretation and working to decenter lived social conditions (pp. 74, 91). If your world is one in which nonhuman agents such as creeks, fogs, rocks are lively to the extent that they affect and are affected by specific humans, then any imperative to allow objects ‘just to be’ in and of themselves is both absurd and detrimental. Responsible being in the world is better served by Karrabing ‘ongoing efforts of attention’ to local nonhumans and human alike, leading Povinelli to suggest that our own parsing of the world ‘should’ also interminably interpret the directionality, orientation, and connections of and between different agents and places (p. 116).

Geonotologies features several such normative injunctions, typically posed as questions. Perhaps, Povinelli (p. 122) asks, meteorological, ecological and geological existents ‘should have an equal say in legal, political, and ethical debates in late liberalism’? Or that they ‘should matter equally to or as much or more than a form of human existence’ (p. 35)? Indeed, perhaps they must, since we ‘must allow existents that are not biologically and anthropologically legible or do not speak to disrupt’ the standard democratic ordering of the political (p. 142). But where did these norms come from? Why is equality the ideal? Why insist of the voice these particular existents and not others? While Povinelli supplies no obvious answers, she implies that the Karrabing collective, and human life on Earth more generally, depends on other existents having political presence and influence.

This brings us to the book’s unresolved tensions which are amongst the defining tensions of critical scholarship today. To generalise, just as there is a growing body of work across multiple disciplines seeking to trouble the boundaries of ‘life’ and draw attention to the ‘liveliness’ of a vast array of existents there are also those who insist on the primacy of human factors. These perspectives all reside somewhere between emergence and determination, representing given situations in such a way as to re-order, or even ignore, the efficacy of certain human and other existents. Well-known interventions in these debates, such as Eduardo Kohn’s call to let others semiotise, suggest how existent others might be heard, however they provide little guidance about the distribution of voices and votes in the parliament of existents? Who determines the future more than others? Two Women Sitting Down? The creek Tjipel? An invasive grass? A bacteria? An asteroid?

Povinelli’s own tactic in Geontologies is to argue that it is crucial to attend to ‘whose arguments about truth and persuasion… gain the power to set the norm’ (p. 91). All existents matter, but their very presence often depends significantly on the extent to which they matter to humans with the political and economic capital to foster or destroy them. This pragmatic point provides a check on recent enthusiasm regarding indigenous alterity and multinaturalisms, which can sometimes elide the precarity of lived difference (Neale and Vincent, 2017). But if the book’s ideals of equality resemble the liberal politics problematized by Povinelli elsewhere, they are nonetheless conditioned by an insistence on the absolute dependence of humans. The ‘radical potential’ signalled in the opening and the close of the book hinges upon the promise of recomposing the political through attending to, and defending, local existents. To rework Foucault’s phrase, the imperative and diagnosis of Geontologies is that ‘existents must be defended’.

Timothy Neale (Deakin University)


NEALE, T. & VINCENT, E. 2017. Mining, indigeneity, alterity: or, mining indigenous alterity? Cultural Studies 31:2-3, 417-439.

POVINELLI, E. 1993. Labor’s lot: the power, history, and culture of Aboriginal action, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

POVINELLI, E. 2002. The cunning of recognition: indigenous alterities and the making of Australian multiculturalism, Durham, NC, Duke University Press.

POVINELLI, E. 2011. Economies of abandonment: social belonging and endurance in late liberalism, Durham, NC, Duke University Press.

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

[1] All references in this review are to Geontologies unless otherwise noted.

Finding ways to talk about native title

Recently, my colleague Eve Vincent and I wrote an explainer piece for The Conversation about ‘green-black alliances’ in Australia. As many times before, while putting together that piece Eve and I debated over the details of Indigenous land rights in Australia (meaning, specifically, only those land rights recognised within settler legal regimes, not land rights as they exist in Indigenous law) and their social and legal context. This is not only a question of ‘how much do [non-indigenous readers] need to know?’ but also ‘how much will [non-indigenous readers] tolerate?’ On plenty of occasions, people have demonstrated to me in Australia and Aotearoa that, even when their initial interest is genuine and enthusiastic, their actual capacity to take in information about Indigenous land rights is brief, limited, or short-lived. Over and again, casual conversations where I’ve tried to explain the native title ‘right to negotiate’ have moved from engaged interest to borderline narcolepsy. I’ve varied my approach but the results are pretty consistent. Unsurprisingly, editors have told me on several occasions that this is exactly the material to cut from written work.

There are plenty of possible reasons for all this: legal technicality is boring; I’m boring; people are just being polite in the first place. My own preferred explanations are the following:

  1. Pedagogy: I’ve never encountered a non-indigenous person, let alone a 1st-year university student, who had gained any knowledge of the basic tenets and features of native title (or similar forms of recognised land rights) from their pre-tertiary schooling. This is not to say that writing such information into national curriculums would be a fix (see: Aotearoa), but that it would help establish pathways of interest in it and the wider expectation that one ‘should’ know about it.
  2. Complexity as tactic: this is nothing new to the critical legal scholars out there (or readers of James Ferguson, Tania Murray Li etc.), but it is clear in this instance – as in many others – that the complexity of native title (or similar forms) serves the purposes of settler administrators and settler power. Its technicality and jargon create both forbidding barriers to critical engagement while, conveniently, depoliticising its processes and features. It has been designed and developed to appear as both a form of reparation (it’s not!) and a neutral system of administration (‘the way things are’), attended by networks of well-paid experts inside and outside government.

In sum, this permits, or at least creates the conditions for, any number of the absurdities of the present situation. The list of absurdities includes the misconceived notion, demonstrated in the present dispute over Adani’s planned Carmichael coal mine, that native title in any way jeopardises mining investment in Australia. This is an old and reliable line developed and utilised by Labor and Liberals alike. In the 1990s, mining executive decried native title as ‘the biggest disaster for [mining] investment that has ever been visited upon us in this country’. However, as Lavelle showed (see: Lavelle, Ashley. 2001. “The Mining Industry’s Campaign Against Native Title.” Australian Journal of Political Science 36 (1):101-122) investment in mining ventures did not abate before or after the Mabo and Wik decisions. This is, in part, due to the ‘pincer’ publicity strategy by the mining industry in the 1990s and after, representing native title as a mighty legal right, and thereby a terrible burden on business and productivity, while also representing themselves as singular benefactors (or ‘partners’, philanthropists, etc.) to Indigenous peoples. Governments, including the Turnbull administration, have been happy enough to go along with this story, further weakening Indigenous land rights anytime they become inconvenient. But, fundamentally, behind the blather about ‘market uncertainty’, the facts are that a) native title holders cannot legally say ‘no’ to resource extraction from their country (they should be able to, though, obviously), and b) there is little good evidence that mining is financially beneficial to native title holders overall.

This argument, and much more besides, in laid out in David Ritter’s excellent 2009 book Contesting Native Title. However, the continuing level of disinterest and ignorance about the legalities of Indigenous land rights in Australia makes me think that we need more people – academics, journalists, activists – writing accounts of those rights that are once critical, grounded, straight-forward and compelling.


Publications recently

Eve Vincent and I recently wrote something about the ‘Unstable Relations’ book on The Conversation. It begins:

In Australia and across the world, Indigenous people are resisting developments that threaten their lands. Wangan and Jagalingou people stand in opposition to the planned Carmichael coalmine in Queensland, while the Sioux people are holding firm in their struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock.

As these contests intensify, they reveal that Indigenous peoples often have limited say over what happens on their country. When pitted against powerful state and corporate actors, Indigenous people may seek assistance from others, such as environmentalists, to protect their interests and further their aspirations.

In Australia, these arrangements have sometimes been called “green-black alliances”. However, as we argue in our new book Unstable Relations, it is misleading to contend that Indigenous people and environmentalists necessarily share (or don’t share) the same ends and motives.

The rest is available through the link above.

Screen Shot 2017-03-15 at 9.15.47 AMMy upcoming book – Wild Articulations: Environmentalism and Indigeneity in Northern Australia – has a cover (!) and will be out in hardcover on 31 July. I am hoping I can beg and browbeat enough libraries and book stores to get copies that it will also move to paperback.

Lastly, I have been meaning to post a link to the first academic paper to come out of the research I did in Greater Darwin over 2015-2016. The paper – which addresses natural hazards practitioners’ accounts of the diverse drivers of bushfire risk in that region – sits somewhere between analyses of policy and practice and the more critical cultural analyses regarding ‘our flammable futures’ which I am developing now.

A visit to Taungurung country

Later this year, I’ll be part of a team starting a new research project (more about this soon) on collaborations and engagements between Aboriginal peoples and the natural hazards sector in southern Australia. It’s an exciting venture, and while I cannot get started on it quite yet, the short-term upshot is that it has given me the opportunity to get out in country Victoria. This week, that meant visiting Strath Creek Falls (dry, in high summer) on Taungurung country, near Broadford. The area, part of Mt Disappointment State Forrest, was heavily affect by the 2009 Black Saturday fires, specifically the Kilmore East fire, which started that morning southwest of Strath Creek Falls, travelled southeast through the day, and then turned to the northeast in the afternoon. Looking towards falls (pic below), one would have seen the pall of the inferno over the hill, shuffling right to left, before it moved over the hill’s crest in the mid-evening.

We all know that forests on this continent grow back. The seed bank still comes to life in the wake of such extreme heat. Juvenile obligate seeders spring back, crowding for space, shaded by epicormic growths spreading out from the mature trees left standing. Nonetheless, I still find it staggering to see the abundance eight years later.


Settler colonialism and weed ecology

Recently, I wrote a post for the blog run by the Anthropology and Environment Society, a section of the American Anthropological Association. It is part of a series on ‘Life on the Frontier: The Environmental Anthropology of Settler Colonialism‘ edited by a group of HDRs and ECRs, and will feature commentaries by Zoe Todd and Clint Carroll. Those who have read previous posts on my own blog will know I have been thinking for a while about settler colonial theory, its elements, and how it fits with my research projects. My post begins:

Two propositions to start: there is a significant parallel (or companionship) between settlers and weeds; and, there is also a significant parallel (or companionship) between the structures of settler colonialism and those of weed ecology. These are the propositions that I want to work through in what follows, propositions that draw upon both the significant existing body of work by Indigenous and non-indigenous historians, anthropologists and others on the ways in which nonhuman actors have been mobilised within projects of settler colonial territorialization, and more recent work, including my own, in settler colonial nations such Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand where exotic nonhuman species dominate many landscapes.

You can read more here. (Also, huge thanks to the editors for publishing [and editing!] this piece).