Audrey Verma is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow whose research revolves around the connections and frictions between humans, nature and technology. Her current research asks what it means to be human and a citizen in the digital Anthropocene, and the next project she is piloting examines heat inequalities. In the fourth post in our Imagining Better Futures mini-series, Audrey shares some of the context and motivations behind her event, Hope and Resistance in the Anthropocene, co-convened with JC Niala in February 2021.
Much of my research has been a search for hope where there appears to be little. This goes a long way towards explaining why I chose to research digital environmental activism at a time when both the digital and the environmental are depressing domains. It is why I do research that has me doom-scrolling on social media for hours each day, with bad news broken up only rarely by concessions hard-won by tireless activist communities. My search may also explain the Hope and Resistance event. From one perspective, the event was borne out of a shared disaffection between my co-organiser JC and myself, with unrelentingly declensionist narratives on the Anthropocene.
As necessary, paradoxically comforting, and even titillating as dystopian imaginaries can be, my sense has always been that the more challenging and critical task is to move past repetitious identification of the problems. Much as identification of issues is a strength of sociology, we need to move toward imagining and enacting change. The latter is frequently far less within the grasp and will of sociology.
The atrophied imagining of alternatives (Fisher 2009) when it comes to current environmentally devastating modes of production and social organisation is also not simply down to the neo-liberal colonisation of thought and meaning. It increasingly resembles a series of political and agential choices that excuse action and facilitate ongoing opportunism with destructive projects. Heavily westernised dystopian visions of environmental ends can border on tasteless too. For colonised groups and species already gone or on the brink, there are multiple inhabited, real worlds that have already ended or been irreversibly altered (Danowski and De Castro 2017).
– Silverweed (Potentilla anserina) a common edible plant from the rose family with distinctive silvery underleaf. The plant grows well perenially on many habitats, including sand dunes, and its yellow flowers are a source of nectar. With thanks to Dr Tom Dargie.
Our shared principles and vision for the Hope and Resistance event followed from these senses and were threefold: First, we hoped to move away from modes of resignation and decline discourses. We wanted instead to nurture the conceptual and empirical seeds of hope not in any banal sense, but in ways that ‘acknowledge catastrophe while imagining and enacting possibility’ (Tsing et al, 2019). Our focus was on the spaces of ecological hope and environmental practices that sustain us, to reflect on what it means to be citizens and humans in these times. Second, we wanted to create an event sensitive to unequal levels, flows and intentions of current consumption and extraction. The event would recognise and respect the differing capacities and impetuses of the Majority World to grieve, hope and resist compared with Euro-America (Head, 2016). Third, we wanted to create calm, collective thinking times and spaces, with research, stories and art from across a wide range of disciplines, perspectives and locations. We sought contributions that would bear witness to the many ways in which we cope, counter and confront life and loss in the Anthropocene.
Creating spaces of hope
The response to our call was humbling, generating a programme and participation we are proud to have drawn together. The excellent contributions we received serendipitously fit under four connected thematic sessions:
1. Messy Worlds, with contributions that spoke not only to the actual stuff of mess, sewage and waste, but also to the complicated and complicating political and conceptual factors surrounding resistance and hope.
2. Experiencing Worlds, which featured empirical entanglements with extinction, climate change, grief and the possibilities that come with the resurgence of life and rethinking our relations to the natural environment.
3. Imagining Worlds, which revolved around the roles of literature, art, film and speculative fiction in actively shaping environmental futures.
4. Growing Worlds, with vibrant engagements on plants, re-wilding and practices of growing.
The shape of the event was itself a valuable experience too. It had a sense of glorious un-disciplinary unruliness. The spirit of sharing and collegiality was present throughout the day’s active discussion, and there were multiple digital interfaces facilitating conversations before, during and after the event with participants from across the globe.
Across the lively event, several threads stood out for me: I found myself thinking about the varying scales of hope. My attention was drawn to the small actants and nano-utopias (McKnight 2020) often overlooked. From children in Yan Gao’s reflection on the changing shape of East Asian environmentalism to the beauteous detail of plant growth depicted by Michelle Lai in Plantopia. The unexpected spaces of hope came across strongly, from the heterotopias of the Korean DMZ discussed by Myung-Ae Choi, Kolkata’s wastewater wetlands described by Jenia Mukherjee, conflict-fraught waste management sites in Kerala detailed by Ashish Prabhakar, and the charred earth in the aftermath of the Australian fires discussed by Helena Bender and Andrea Rawluk. Reflections on the timespans of hope and change emerged with Greta Schiller’s film The Land of Azaba and Katy Davis’ research on North American Arctic communities living with climate change.
– Kelp-rafting is an important way in which aquatic material and life circulates. With thanks to Dr Tom Dargie.
Hope still feels like an airy, abstract and inadequate concept for the times we find ourselves in, especially when compared to intellectually profound ideas such as utopia, as Lisa Garforth articulated brilliantly during the event and in preceding posts. When JC and I first came together to start thinking about the event, the rank inequalities highlighted by the pandemic and gross extractive opportunism in its wake were starting to come into full view. My own ethnographic fieldwork was (and continues to be) marked by the palpable exhaustion of the environmental activists and communities I work with. Hope seemed to be one of the few things we could latch on to at the time; it still is. The difficulty of holding on to hope when the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism (Jameson 2003) can be instructive. Hope is the spark for activism and perhaps change, but it is itself an active doing, a habit and practice that requires care, cultivation and the creation of communities.
If you would like to get involved in follow-up event activities or request resources from the day, please email Audrey (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Danowski, D. and de Castro, E, B. V. (2017) The Ends of the World. Cambridge, UK: Polity.
Fischer, M. (2009) Capitalist realism. Hants, UK: Zer0 Books.
Jameson, F. (2003). Future City. New Left Review. https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii21/articles/fredric-jameson-future-city
McKnight, H. (2020). ‘Chaos and Hope: nano-utopian moments of activist self-organisation’ Excursions, vol. 10, no. 1, pp.33-60.
Tsing, A, L., Mathews, A. S., and Bubandt, N. (2019) ‘Patchy Anthropocene: landscape structure, multispecies history, and the retooling of anthropology’ Current Anthropology, vol. 60 (S20), pp.186-197.