Invisible Dust

London | Sunday 22 July
Pollution level: Moderate

Hearing From Our Fellows: Silvia Pergetti


A plaidoyer for (a feminist) anthropology

“From space, we see a small and fragile ball
dominated not by human activity and edifice
but by a pattern of clouds, oceans, greenery, and soils.
Humanity’s inability to fit its activities into that pattern
is changing planetary systems fundamentally”.
–– World Commission of Environment and Development (1987)

Type ‘Sundarbans’ into Google and you will see splendid images of cracked paint-like shapes and shades of blues and greens captured from satellites. Mangrove forests, biodiversity, tigers, wildlife, ecosystem: these are the words filling up Wikipedia, WWF, and UNESCO pages. Only by scrolling down will you find information about the millions of people living in what happens to be one of the world’s most densely populated areas. In 1984, the concerns of cosmopolitan nature lovers led to the institutionalisation of India’s Sundarbans National Park – and to the formal exclusion of Sundarbans islanders from important sources of income. Today, the environmentalism of the world’s urbanites is reinvigorated by the discursive production of a ‘climate crisis’. As the islands are being eroded by rising sea levels, the climate crisis discourse emphasises the importance of the Sundarbans as the largest carbon sink in South Asia – yet obscures the claims and desires of those living on the shrinking islands. What do our preoccupations about this thing known as climate change do to other human beings?

In this space, I study the deployment of renewable energy technologies and infrastructures within development projects for rural electrification. Against the grain of the commonly held belief that such technologies have objective salvation properties, I explore how they sustain or frustrate, interact with and complicate people’s aspirations towards better lives and claims to connection. The starting point for my research is the acknowledgement that technology is not intrinsically bad or good; rather, it becomes a political space that allows for the circulation of multiple projects. To say it with my anthro heroes Dominic Boyer and Cymene Howe – “the power of energy is not singular”. And so here I am, a trainee in anthropology in my first year of PhD, thinking about how to do justice to these many powers and dynamics. How can my research help scholars and lay readers alike go beyond the transitional narrative of an imperative ‘energy transition’? Through the Under Her Eye fellowship, Invisible Dust supports young female researchers like myself in their efforts to creatively bridge the gap between the arts and the (social and natural) sciences and more effectively communicate issues of utmost urgency.

The fellowship – involving workshops on climate change communication, fundraising and public speaking and the participation in the much-awaited summit/festival Under Her Eye – prompts us to consider the role of women in tackling the challenge of climate change. For me, it is an occasion for reflecting on my positionality as a fair-skinned anthropologist-to-be in a post-colonial setting. The emphasis on ‘women and climate change’ is an irresistible invitation to do so – not only because my research sits uncomfortably with the universalising pleas made in the name of climate change. Most importantly, anthropology is still seen by some as the epitome of the male gaze on a feminised post-colonial other. The long and problematic history of the discipline and its engagement with and in the Global South is further complicated by the interest taken by many scholars – including myself – in the processes of change collectively known as ‘development’. I remember my first encounter with the anthropology of development at the LSE, where the title of one assigned reading confronted me with the question: is anthropology development’s evil twin?

It was a painful realisation. I had come to study anthropology motivated by a disenchantment with the pursuits and claims of the development industry – thinking I had found my moral heart (and hearth). In Cambodia, where I had worked for few years, I had developed a deep admiration for the work of one, quite unusual development practitioner, an Indonesian man who – for twenty years – had been living and talking with (rather than for or to) the people supposed to benefit from the intervention of the NGO. The positive impact that had been achieved – it was my conviction – was to a large extent thanks to this man’s humble attitude and intensive commitment. It is the same attitude and commitment that Faye Harrison – champion of decolonising anthropology – attributes to an anthropology “when we do it right”. How can it then be that people so generously willing to open to the claims of others end up doing so badly? How can the life of a Veena Das – as she admits in Affliction – still be haunted by a scepticism regarding her experience with anthropology? Is there a place for the discipline in a decolonising academia and world? How can we possibly “do it right”?

In 2015, one of my professors at the LSE published – together with some of my favourite scholars – a feminist manifesto for the study of capitalism. Can anthropology have a feminist soul? In that it becomes attentive to the diversity of life projects, values, identities and aspirations and challenges forms of exploitation from within, it can. This is an anthropology that takes the time to understand before it speaks. And as it turns out, it has important things to say. Laura Bear’s work in Kolkata, for instance, has challenged the conventional wisdom that sovereign debt must be repaid by showing the effects of austerity policies on people working in the shipyards along the river Hoogly – where precarious forms of labour, ramshackle facilities and obsolete technologies subsidise the repayment of international loans. Feminist anthropology is not only female: Jamie Cross, or Ruben Andersson as another example, similarly start from people’s experiences and the everyday and work up to unsettle our assumptions about what is good and desirable, what is given and taken for granted – revealing the unintended consequences of ‘good’ ideas. I think the question is not whether anthropology in general is, or has always been, an ethical pursuit, but how you can make it as such. It is the openness to this question – independently from whether you are the grandchild of Italian farmers or British colonial officers – that makes our discipline unique in its ability to question, even itself.

In the Sundarbans, shadowed by concerns about preserving the carbon-sequestering forests of Sundari trees, unequal power relations materialise in photovoltaic arrays and their erratic, discontinuous and limited energy supply. Suspended at the level of satellite imagery, we fail to appreciate how the ‘desirable universal’ of an energy transition clashes with unmet but enduring development aspirations of people living in energy poverty. In this space, a feminist anthropology does not stop – as the World Commission on Environment and Development would like us to do – at contemplating “the patterns of clouds, oceans, greenery, and soils” from without. It demands that we zoom in, look under the Sundari trees, to reveal the everyday struggles for connection, for more power, for better life. It is in this context that the material politics of renewable energy technologies for ‘sustainable development’ are going to be investigated. Under what conditions can the Sundarbans be both for the poor and for all, for the nonhumans as well as the humans, for the future and for the present too?

 Silvia Pergetti is a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology and ESRC-funded scholar at the University of Edinburgh. Her research explores the unintended and uneven consequences of renewable energy technologies and infrastructures in India’s Sundarbans, a site of environmental protection that is extremely vulnerable to climate change. A graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science, Silvia has several years of experience working in the energy and development sector in Germany, India and Cambodia. At the University of Edinburgh, she is a member of the Not Just Energy Futures research group.





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