THE ANTHROPOCENE is a condition that chokes our airways with the smoke of uncontrollable wildfires, toxic leaks, megastorms, agricultural poisons, air pollution—and novel runaway viruses. It’s an embodied realization of inescapable danger, one that stands in contrast to the still-dominant twentieth-century myth that the world’s dangers can be contained and forgotten. That myth rested on an endless supply of security zones, hiding places blocked off from dangerous poisons and people with illusory barriers. Even when those barriers failed, there would always be another place to hide, another imaginary zone of security policing the border between worthwhile and worthless lives, within and without.
Today there can be no more trust in hiding places. There can be no more deflections from the structural inequalities we manufactured to invent “safety” for some and danger for others. Some of us have known this for a while—“essential workers” in grocery stores and nursing homes are “sacrificial laborers” for a reason. Now most everyone can taste the fumes of the Anthropocene and the planetary legacies of invasion, extraction, and exploitation that have poisoned and sickened us.
In February 2020, a month before the pandemic lockdown hit us, we first sat together as a group of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) scholars to discuss how best to intervene in discussions of the Anthropocene, this time of human-sponsored environmental disasters. We came together not only because of our concerns about the planet, but also because of our concerns about the conceptual frameworks developed to address Anthropocene nightmares. Too often, environmental and social justice concerns are pitted against each other. Scholars and activists in one sector too frequently dismiss the others’ problems as “beside the point,” as if it were impossible to combine both concerns. As generations of “ecowarriors” (to use Leslie Marmon Silko’s term) have shown us, combining those concerns is not only possible but actually necessary.
As anthropologists, we told stories from our research, using what we learned to develop skills of empathy, translation, and communication. We talked, we walked, we wrote together. As we wrote, we found ourselves drawn to the senses: a framework common to all people on Earth and yet always uniquely tied to a specific moment and position. Instead of describing planetary precarity as a series of climate circulations, carbon calculations, or global moral predicaments, we aimed to show how sensual immersion in a time and place might condense past and present, human and more-than-human, macro and micro, sustainability and unsustainability. We imagined ourselves in the brackish water and thick detritus of a coastal slough, a place where land, water, and air mix together, evoking both the planetary and the particular. Here we surely know that we could never survive alone, that living and nonliving mingle to determine what lives are possible. We became slough-sayers, fish speakers, inhabitants of this tender layer of Earth’s mantle.
In what follows, we begin the process of compiling that multitude of stories that together show the accrual of planetary dangers by structural violence and inequality. Our stories are just a beginning, a glimpse of a practice that should continue and continue. If you care about plagues and pandemics, consider how we have built them into modern landscapes through coerced and transported labor. If you wonder why quarantines and barriers no longer protect us from rising tides, thread your fingers into the permeable materials they’re made from. If you want to know how to weather the coming storms, look to the people who have had to defy their governments to survive. Listen to their stories.
1. Fever Dreams
Around the world today, we make landscapes and travel corridors for diseases. The mosquitoes of the southeast U.S. are reminders not just of our past but also of our present.
South Carolina, dawn. It’s a stifling day in August. The time of year people once called the season of misery. Looking out the window, we discover a lot more than the weather to worry about: we’re surrounded by mosquitoes. Just cracking the door open invites in a wave of them. As we summon the courage to fully open the car door, it’s clear that we’re entering the mosquitoes’ space.
Palmetto trees stand at the water’s edge; cypress knees, woody protrusions, stick up high above the brown-tinted water’s surface. Nearby, we hear a muted sound as something enters the murky water. It’s not a frog, not a plop. Maybe it’s a cottonmouth or copperhead snake. The past bleeds into the present. This once was a plantation, part of the southeastern lowland plantation belt, producing rice, indigo, and, later, Sea Island cotton. Imagine the workers, ankle deep in mud, as stuck in the swamp as the cypress knees, swarmed by mosquitoes. Before then, this was a healthy place for humans, until smallpox and other zoonotic diseases killed many Native Americans. Now tall grass, weeds, and stagnant water sustain the humidity in which the mosquitoes, and malaria, delight.
There can be no more deflections from the structural inequalities we manufactured to invent “safety.”
The treacherous source of the “fevers” of the seventeenth- through nineteenth-century American southeast, malaria is caused by a set of tiny parasites who happen to thrive in two distinct environments: the human bloodstream and the salivary glands of mosquitoes of the genus Anopheles. This unique feature enables the parasites to move from person to person through the bite of a mosquito.
Until recently, medical historians blamed the deadliest species of malaria, caused by the parasite Plasmodium falciparum, on enslaved Africans, who were thought to have carried it across the Atlantic in their blood. But it turns out the parasite has been present in southern Europe since Roman times. Mediterranean sailors who brought both white planters and kidnapped Black workers to the New World would have been equally capable of bringing the parasite with them.
The spread of malaria required not just the mosquitoes to carry the parasite but also a landscape remade by the plantation system. This is the story that ricochets between past and present: diseases spread where we adjust landscapes and build infrastructures for them. In South Carolina, cypress swamps became rice fields through the intensive human labor of enslaved Africans, forced to spend hours among the mosquitoes. The rice fields in turn provided the pattern of vegetation favored for the Anopheles life cycle: the mosquitoes liked having vegetation available both underwater and above; they liked the trees cleared; they liked the workers in the swamp, captive blood meals. It was the perfect landscape for the spread of fevers.
We have built disease environments into the modern world.
2. Shelter from the Storm
Vulture thinking produces dire ripple effects. Consider Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane María, where residents wary of hunger and the elements had the additional task of protecting themselves against their own government. With relief supplies missing, thousands died from lack of water, food, housing, and medical care, but the government refused to count them, choosing instead to just pile them in morgues. Leaked chat messages from the former governor’s inner circle exposed a deep disdain for fellow Puerto Ricans; one government official asked, “Don’t we have any corpses to feed our vultures?” The bodies were a joke, one that nearly two years after Hurricane María confirmed that the disaster was not only far from over but also more than natural.
But blaming the archipelago’s economic problems on local corruption alone ignores the colonial dependency that makes Puerto Rico, an “unincorporated territory” of the United States, vulnerable to Anthropocene violence. Puerto Rico knows hurricanes, so why was María so devastating? More than a decade of debt crisis in the years before the storm had already left the island’s infrastructure, from the electrical grid to the health care system, in severe disrepair. Shortly before María, the appointed Financial Oversight and Management Board, which oversaw Puerto Rico’s economic restructuring, advanced significant austerity measures, deepening inequalities and eroding the infrastructure further. By the time the storm hit in 2017, much of the damage had already been done.
To understand the effects of the storm—that is, the Anthropocene in Puerto Rico—it is necessary to understand the financialization that bankrupted public coffers and led to the impossibility of responsible state response to the storm. In the decade leading up to the hurricane, instead of investing directly in communities and livelihoods in Puerto Rico, local elites embraced financialization, outsourcing to bondholders the funding of everything from education to social services. State actors and U.S. financial institutions together designed “municipal bonds” that would be attractive to First World bondholders eager for tax benefits; in exchange, Puerto Rican sales tax revenues, public infrastructure funds (from highways to electric grids), and social service revenues were increasingly siphoned to pay these debts.
As with most extractive plans, indebtedness continued to climb, resulting in downgraded municipal bond values and making Puerto Rico an ideal place for Wall Street hedge or “vulture” funds to swoop in for a supposedly “risk-free” opportunity. But the investment was only “without risk” because Wall Street had the confidence that, in the event of default, investors would be bailed out by the U.S. government or an international financial institution. Further, because a U.S. federal law prevented Puerto Rico from a declaration of bankruptcy, hedge fund managers could demand that the saving from austerity measures be commandeered for their repayment. By 2016, almost a third of the island’s revenue was being channeled to service its debts. In 2019, hedge funds doubled down on this model by securing forty years of payment on their bonds, locking in four decades of high sales taxes on the backs of the island’s citizens. The result is a shell of a government unable to navigate hurricanes, earthquakes, and the current pandemic.
And yet, María changed everything. The megahurricane, fed by warmer ocean temperatures, laid bare a violence that ideologies and infrastructures had hidden. In the middle decades of the twentieth century, Puerto Rico’s transition from an agrarian to an industrialized economy had signaled a new era of imagined prosperity. Ideologies of development—and colonial domination— had built a society supposedly sheltered by new cement homes, electricity, cars, shopping malls, cultural nationalism, and other features of modern life. This shelter also conferred an imaginary political freedom: in 1952, the U.S. Congress authorized Puerto Rican control of internal governance through the creation of the “Free Associated State” of Puerto Rico. The shelter sectioned off Puerto Rico from the rest of the Caribbean and Latin America and allowed people to imagine that the archipelago was somehow not part of the Third World.
This shelter was already more imagined than real, and already weakened by years of debt and the government’s lack of appropriate response. It collapsed completely under the storm, forcing people to face, on a massive scale, the wasteland around them. Finding bare shelves in the supermarkets, people had to consider why most of their food was imported. Without water at home, people had to wash in rivers, collect water from springs, open wells that the EPA had shut down, and face the systematic poisoning of their environment by pharmaceutical factories and agrochemicals. Meanwhile, the vultures circled . . .
“María took away our fear.” The slogans that appeared during the 2019 summer uprising expressed people’s accumulated rage—and a shift in power. Motley, heterogeneous multitudes occupied the streets of San Juan and other public spaces across Puerto Rico. Young people who had never known prosperity, pensioners who had lost what little they had to bondholders, women who had kept everyone alive after the hurricane and yet now faced widespread gendered violence, reggaeton dance partyers defiant of middle-class propriety—these new political actors joined feminists, labor unions, anarchists, debt auditors, environmentalists, students, and other groups that had long been vocal against injustices. The uprising felt like another hurricane. The collective experience of surviving María without even a pretense of help from the colonial state changed how Puerto Ricans see their place in the world. There are no more shelters, only storms.
Interlude: Capitalism Is Not Just an Interlude
The remaking of landscapes for plantation slavery and the weakening of a territory’s economy worked hand in hand with the formation of industrial capitalism. Indeed, the free market, imagined as disembodied and unencumbered exchange, is only possible through the theft of land, labor, and the multispecies lives that become “resources” for investment and growth.
Capitalism had no humble beginnings, and today it relies on similar infrastructures of accumulation to fuel the Anthropocene. Over the past four decades, financialization has intensified the Great Acceleration by doubling down on the imperative to grow. We act as if growth has no consequences, as if no one has to shoulder the burdens it creates. But as distant investors approach everything in our world as assets to commandeer for the benefit of elites, the claims of most regular folks on these institutions are eroded. (Of course, most BIPOC communities are excluded from even this previous possibility of wealth sharing.) Corporations have been removed from their employees and communities, profits have accrued upward, and workers have lost their seats at the table. Untethered to a larger commons, investors and financiers push for continual growth, leading to planetary instability, exploitation, and disregard.
Surrounded by an increasingly precarious world, elites create hideaways. In an air-conditioned, high-rise office hundreds of feet above the ground, it is easy to imagine that you have a safe and panoptic view of the waters below. During the pandemic, you might be able to escape from Central Park West to the green spaces of Greenwich, Connecticut, and the Hamptons. But these actions perpetuate the very forms of vulnerability from which they are meant to protect. You depend on the essential workers who create the possibility of your escape. In creating safety and wealth for some, financial transactions seal the fate of those who live outside their (in fact, often flimsy) enclosures. Inequality and hideaways are constructed together.
Recall the 2008 financial crisis, brought on by an explosion of predatory subprime loans in the United States, loans that at first targeted African Americans and BIPOC communities (causing a generational fleecing of Black property) and then became the preferred model peddled toward the majority. The year before the 2008 crash, almost half of all the mortgage borrowers who were actively sold a subprime loan would have qualified for “prime,” low-interest loans, loans that did not lead so directly to foreclosure. Disaster ensued from investors’ logic. Dreams of elite hideaways boomeranged, exposing not only their basis in inequality but also their effects: vulnerability from the bottom up.
Hideaways, too, are vulnerable. Consider Malibu, California, which in 2018 experienced roaring and devastating fires. The very wealthy had built homes in the canyons surrounded by towering and highly flammable eucalyptus trees. The roads wind up the canyons, and automobile drivers frequently reach a dead end—the lonely splendor of “paradise,” with no easy exit. During yet another record dry season brought to us by climate change, fires burned down huge mansions; even the rich were left with no place to hide.
3. Imperfect Barriers
We do our best to build modernist certainties with materials that support only uncertainties. In Guyana, embankments to block rising seas and raging floods are made of peat, an imperfect barrier for water. For millennia, the dark-colored humus has provided a vital habitat for plant ecologies and protection of human food sources, accumulating waterlogged and partially decomposed plant matter. Peatlands are spongy, amorphous shapeshifters, drawing water into land, remixing the dead and the living, the human and nonhuman.
Separating land and water was a key feature of colonial rule in this region. Before colonial contact, many coastal Amerindian communities relied on a more mobile lifestyle that involved migrating upriver during the wet season. But during the eras of Dutch and British colonialism, a network of earthen canals and dams were engineered to create irrigation for sugar plantations. They did not come without substantial cost and sacrifice, primarily on the backs of enslaved Africans and indentured laborers from India, Portugal, and China. By the mid-1800s, historians had counted millions of tons of peatlands dug up with shovels and hauled by laborers. Slavery reconstituted the entire terrain, while peatlands became the stuff of human exploitation in the building of dikes and embankments.
In Guyana, a peat soil deposit is called by the English creole name pegasse, a derivative of the word bagasse, which is used to describe the pulpy remains of sugarcane. Pegasse is the living ghost of plantations: it haunts engineers’ efforts to learn and master drainage. Even with such massive effort, engineers report that peatlands are too finicky for building reliable foundations for waterworks. Cascading rivers and the force of the Atlantic Ocean loom as ever-present threats that, in an instant, could wash away this earthen system of expertise and design, and at least twice in Guyana’s history, intense flooding has compromised the coast’s dam network. In 2005, erratic storms contributed to floods that displaced most Guyanese from their homes for nearly three months. Engineers associated the weather system with climate change and vowed to adapt waterworks to better withstand intense flooding.
With the aid of the World Bank and the United Nations, engineers in Guyana have once again reimagined the future of peatlands. Unlike previous design efforts, however, in “climate adaptation,” we’ve learned not to take peatlands for granted. The realignment of dam embankments and canals involves tedious coordination between humans and soils. Engineers and foremen pull thin geotextile sheets through pegasse as if covering the dead. Hunched over, arms dangling and knees bent, the human workers pull and fold the thin sheets. After each fold, the foremen and engineers scurry to the side as large earthmoving excavators dump mounds of pegasse mixed with clay onto the surface of the sheets. When the excavators finish, the workers scurry back to start their dance again, relying on the pegasse to guide their movements. One by one, each sheet reinforces the structural foundation of the waterworks. The engineers hope that the layers of pegasse will shift with the folds of geotextile over time.
Laying bare the engineered worlds that make the restoration of peatlands an inequitable and uncertain practice across the planet, climate adaptation takes on new meaning. Peatlands are models for human action that situate climate adaptation as an investment in biodiversity as much as expertise. Peatlands transform tales of autonomous survival into the science fiction of the Anthropocene. Ways of knowing peatlands are at once world-ending and groundbreaking. Pegasse is an imperfect barrier between land and water. At the shifting boundary between rising waters and modernist dreams of safety through engineering, the permeability of pegasse makes history.
Alberta fish are some of the tastiest freshwater fish you’ll ever eat. With sixty-three species to be found throughout the waterways in the province, Indigenous peoples have long relied on trout, whitefish, pike, perch, walleye, and others for sustenance. In recent decades, however, a disturbing change has been manifesting in the bodies of fish subjected to the toxic impacts of oil, gas, and other intensive colonial capitalist activity in the region.
We do our best to build modernist certainties with materials that support only uncertainties.
The grotesque fish don’t lie. You can see the truth in their deformed and incomplete faces, sometimes no eyes to be found. The abnormal bodies, the bulges, the wrinkly, brainlike abscesses. The images turn your stomach. Every now and again new photos leak out—sometimes published in the news, but more often circulating on social media or by text through the Sâkawiyiniwak (Northern Bush Cree) and Dene communities, whose traditional territories are being mined and uprooted for bitumen. Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) scholar Leroy Little Bear tells us to ask the fish, our ancient ancestors who come from the time of the beings who are now oil, to teach us about the world. The fish are telling us the Anthropocene has arrived in the boreal forest. This is a time when slow violence often seeps, disappears, and resurfaces.
In the Athabasca oil sands region of northern Alberta, Canada, the people of First Nations and Métis communities, who eat traditional foods from the boreal forest, have made a long list of the environmental changes they have witnessed in water and plant and animal kin. Many participate in environmental monitoring programs meant to twin their knowledge with science. But for the most part, the science remains inconclusive; it doesn’t answer their questions or calm the anxiety they experience every time they go on the land and sit to eat “bush food.” In the public realm, corporate-funded science often predominates and generates further uncertainty about community observations of declining water health, climate change, and polluted food supplies. People are told the fish are safe to eat, but the skin feels slimier than usual, and the meat feels soft.
According to Natural Resources Canada, Canada is the number one foreign supplier of crude oil to the United States. Alberta is the biggest oil-producing region in Canada, and within Alberta, the oil sands are the largest concentrated oil developments in the province. The three bituminous deposits in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan contain the third largest oil reserves in the world, and in 2019, about 14,155 cubic meters were mined and extracted using in situ methods. Seven to ten cubic meters of water are needed to produce one cubic meter of oil, and although the companies use water-recycling methods, fresh water is taken from the Athabasca River and other fresh waterways and aquifers. The used water—containing bitumen, naphthenic acids, cyanide, phenols, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, and zinc—is released into tailings ponds, most of which are on the banks of the Athabasca River. Studies have suggested that as much as 11 million liters leak into the river every day. The headache-inducing stench is unmistakable and is worst in the spring, when the snow and ice melt. Somehow, the fish are supposed to navigate these polluted waters unscathed. Meanwhile, the muskeg, or peat bog, that covers most of the region is peeled off, “de-watered,” and “reclaimed” into unfamiliar parkland forests, in spite of First Nations Elders reminding us that the muskeg is the earth’s water filter.
The fish are insistent in their stories. In Paulatuuq, in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region of the Canadian Western Arctic (a region tied to the Alberta bitumen developments through the drainage of the Athabasca River into the Mackenzie River Basin downstream), local Elder and fisherman Millie Thrasher mentions that Inuvialuit stories correspond to the different bones in certain fish. These specific stories are not ours to share, as non-Inuvialuit. However, the idea of fish speaking with their bodies is a deeply urgent and instructive teaching when confronting the leaks, spills, hazes, plumes, and contaminations from Alberta’s oil sands and oil and gas infrastructures. Their stories are in the water we drink.
There Is No Outside
The infrastructure of the Great Acceleration was born of a Cold War security logic: spaces of safety and well-being could be created by ejecting the wastes those spaces made, taking them to a place thought of simply as “outside.” The sheltered delights of suburbs, schools, and malls could be constructed through the dispossession of original residents, human and not human; the exclusion of those “unworthy” of notice created security and progress for those inside.
Today’s discussion of the Anthropocene signals an awareness of the human and more-than-human terrors this logic has wrought. Toxic waste spreads everywhere, inside and outside our bodies. There are no safe spaces, whether public or private. Although security exclusions promise to protect at least some, waste always seeps out, requiring more exclusions and stimulating more capitalist “creativity,” creating more waste—and in the end, no place to hide.
Rather than building endless walls and false security, we must reject modernist solutions and respect the philosophies that have long enjoined that we think and act differently. As BIPOC scholars, we want to highlight an alternative way of learning. We honor Indigenous thinking and knowledge—not as cultural theft or appropriation but as humble and respectful allies. The Lakota philosophy of honoring “all of our relations” in an ethical and reciprocal way offers us a powerful method to navigate the devastation of climate change and toxic wastelands, floods, fires, and storms. This shift of consciousness recognizes all life in relation—rather than our species just for itself. Dynamic, relationally centered ethics across diverse Indigenous societies, including “all of our relations,” consider how humans, plants, animals, rocks, bees, earth, and everything else are related and embedded within social relationships. Humans and other beings are interconnected and must listen and work to take care of one another. This Indigenous philosophy encourages respectful dialogue and the building of coalitions across difference that can ward off the devastation of the Anthropocene. We must come together as ecowarriors to begin healing the earth and all of our relations. “All of our relations” welcomes humans of all races, genders, and sexual orientations to live together in respect and interdependence.
Knowing the Anthropocene also requires attention to historically created assemblages in which violence, displacement, and dispossession have been critical to landscapes of livability and unlivability. Listening to the stories of all our relations is a central element of learning about these landscapes. The stories open doors of connection and disconnection through which we might both persist and resist. O
Janelle Baker is an environmental anthropologist and ethnoecologist with Métis ancestry. She is a professor of anthropology at Athabasca University and collaborates with First Nations in Alberta, Canada, about their food sovereignty and concerns about industrial contamination of their sacred wild food supply.
Paulla Ebron is an associate professor at Stanford University. Her current research focuses on making a tropical ecozone in the southeastern coastal region of the United States.
Rosa Ficek is an anthropologist of infrastructure, colonialism, and the environment based at the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey. She directs the Hurricane María Archives, a project that uses participatory methods to document community responses to Puerto Rico’s multiple disasters.
Karen Ho, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, researches Wall Street and the culture of finance. Her work is especially concerned with the ongoing ramifications of financialization gone wild: increased socioeconomic inequality, racialized scapegoating, and planetary unsustainability.
Renya Ramirez is an enrolled member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and professor of anthropology at University of California, Santa Cruz. Her expertise includes Native feminisms, settler colonialism, Indigenous studies, diaspora, transnationalism, gendered citizenships, critical mission studies, and Ho-Chunk/Ojibwe family/ tribal history.
Zoe Todd (Métis) is an artist and academic who teaches at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Her work combines human-fish relations, Indigenous environmental studies, and art to explore ongoing responsibilities to fish and water in the Lake Winnipeg watershed.
Anna Tsing teaches anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her most recent project is Feral Atlas: The More-than-Human Anthropocene.
Sarah E. Vaughn is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her field of interest is the critical study of climate change with an emphasis on vulnerability, theories of liberalism, and expertise in Guyana and the circum-Caribbean.
Acknowledgments: Kevin Chen offered invaluable organizational support for our first meeting. Gabrielle Hecht and Kavita Philip participated in the workshop in February, contributing their important insights. Kathryn Chetkovich generously edited this essay. The Lang Fund for Environmental Anthropology supported the project.