CEGU

Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization

Division of Social Sciences, The University of Chicago

Poster for Chaos in the Heavens: The Forgotton History of Climate Change, 15th-20th Centuries; January 2024 CEGU Colloquium with Jean-Baptiste Fressoz

CEGU Colloquium

Yuting Dong, History & CEGU

Friday, February 16, 2024
12:30pm CT

Mansueto Lounge, 1155 E. 60th St.

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From 1986 to 2002, Japan has offered three rounds of financial and technological assistances in building and expanding Changchun’s second Water Purification Plant (WPP). With Japan’s assistances, this regional capital in Northeast China is equipped with a world-class water filtration system that provides crystal clear and clean drinking water to its residents. As the last chapter of my book manuscript (Japan’s Infrastructure Empire), this paper explores the history behind such assistances and show how imperial infrastructure building casts a long shadow in the former colonies as the imperial infrastructure established water standards and internalized a form of understanding of infrastructure. Moreover, this chapter concludes the book by pointing out issues associated with this infrastructure-centered approach in addressing social, political, and ecological problems. The positive consideration of infrastructure as a solution in both Japan further twists the view of the imperial past and provides an insufficient method in the face of current climate crisis. 

Yuting Dong is an assistant professor in the Department of History and CEGU. Her research focuses on Japan’s empire, infrastructure studies, history of labor and of expertise. Before joining Chicago’s history department in 2021, she received her doctoral degree from Harvard University. Her work is published in Modern Asian Studies, Technology and Culture, and International Journal of Asian Studies.

PAST EVENTS

Poster for Chaos in the Heavens: The Forgotton History of Climate Change, 15th-20th Centuries; January 2024 CEGU Colloquium with Jean-Baptiste Fressoz

CEGU Colloquium

Pauline Goul, Romance Languages & Literatures + CEGU

Friday, February 9, 2024
12:30pm CT

Mansueto Lounge, 1155 E. 60th St.

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This chapter provides a new reading of the intricate relationship between Montaigne’s two essays on the New World, “Of Cannibals” and “Of Coaches”, arguing that their affective grounding allowed Montaigne to formulate an anti-colonial, ecological critique of the conquest. From an attention to environmental change in “Of Cannibals” that reveals a critique of expansionism centered on one plagiarized anecdote, to a carefully constructed lexicon of sustainability throughout both essays that reflects on the risks of overloading nature and on limits, I argue that, ultimately, both essays denounce colonization as a movement of subjugation and violence. Montaigne exposes how, by confusing human beings and nonhuman environment as resources, Europeans have rendered themselves insensitive to their responsibility in processes of devastation that have only grown larger to this day.

Poster for Chaos in the Heavens: The Forgotton History of Climate Change, 15th-20th Centuries; January 2024 CEGU Colloquium with Jean-Baptiste Fressoz

CEGU Colloquium

Chaos in the Heavens: The Forgotton History of Climate Change, 15th–20th Centuries

Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Paris

Friday, January 26, 2024
12:30pm CT
Mansueto Lounge, 1155 E. 60th St.

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Nothing could seem more contemporary than climate change. Yet, in Chaos in the Heavens (Verso, 2024), Jean-Baptiste Fressoz and Fabien Locher show that we have been thinking about and debating the consequences of our actions upon the environment for centuries. The subject was raised wherever history accelerated: by the Conquistadors in the New World, by the French revolutionaries of 1789, by the scientists and politicians of the nineteenth century, by the European imperialists in Asian and Africa until the Second World War. Climate change was at the heart of fundamental debates about colonization, God, the state, nature, and capitalism. From these intellectual and political battles emerged key concepts of contemporary environmental science and policy. For a brief interlude, science and industry instilled in us the reassuring illusion of an impassive climate. But, in the age of global warming, we must, once again, confront the chaos in the heavens.

Jean-Baptiste Fressoz is a historian at the CNRS in Paris. He is the author of Happy Apocalypse. A history of technological risk; The Shock of the Anthropocene (with C. Bonneuil); Chaos in the heavens (with Fabien Locher) and Sans transition. Une nouvelle histoire de l’énergie.

poster for Friends in High Places, October 2023 CEGU Event with Megan Black and Elizabeth Chatterjee

CEGU Event, CEGU Colloquium

The WAstemen's fossil flora: geology and labor in britain's energy transition , 1819-1845

Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, History & CEGU

Benjamin Morgan, English & CEGU (discussant)

Friday, November 17, 2023
12:00–2:00pm CT
SSRB Tea Room, 1126 E. 59th St.

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The deep coal mine was the work site of Carboniferous geology. The richest evidence came not from the coal seams themselves but the shale layers that surrounded them. This meant that fossils came to light principally when tunnels collapsed. Fossil collection in the colliery was a high-risk activity associated with maintenance, repair, and danger to life and limb. The key figure in such work was the wasteman. The task of the wasteman was to walk the pits to survey the air courses and keep them in good repair. The wastemen also took stock of the stability of pillars and old workings. Sigillaria fossils posed a particular risk to colliers. Their heavy trunks frequently slipped out of the roof, leaving gaping holes, sometimes as wide as five feet in diameter. Constant surveillance of waste and shale was thus a critical task, vital to the security of the colliery and the lives of the people there. Yet references to the work of the wasteman are very rare in geological texts from the period. In natural theology, the divine work of the Creator took precedence and erased the social world of the collier. Fossils were seen as emblems of providential time, not products of the wasteman’s working day. Sigillaria and other coal plants had purged the atmosphere of surplus carbonic acid and deposited it in the Carboniferous strata. Thanks to the accumulation of carbon in the underground, the atmosphere of the planet had become “fit for the support of animal life, and human habitation.” Coal was not just the fuel of British wealth but also the life-giving force that had made the planet habitable. The erasure of the colliery worker from geology paved the way for a cosmology of carbon. At the same time as mining engineers and wastemen traced the gas flows inside the coalmine, geologists began to imagine God as the wasteman of the carbon cycle, regulating the atmosphere, channeling carbon back and forth through plants, earth, and air.

poster for November 1, 2023 CEGU Colloquium with Julia Mead

CEGU Colloquium, Student Event

Friday, November 10, 2023
2:00–3:00pm CT
Room 344, 1155 E. 60th St.

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All those currently seeking to earn a CEGU Doctoral Certificate are obliged to attend.  Anyone interested in the CEGU Doctoral Certificate are welcome. Attendance in person is preferred, but if you are unable to attend in person, the meeting will be also available via Zoom. You will receive a link upon submitting the registration form.

poster for November 1, 2023 CEGU Colloquium with Julia Mead

CEGU Colloquium

Julia Mead, Ph.D. Candidate in History

Wednesday, November 1, 2023
4:00–5:30pm CT
John Hope Franklin Room (224), Social Science Research Building (1126 E. 59th St.)

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The post-socialist period in East Central Europe was a period of rapid energy transition. From 1948-1989, states in this region relied almost exclusively on domestic coal for industrial and residential heating and electricity, in the process transforming their mining regions into some of the most toxic environments in the world. After 1989, as newly elected governments and foreign economic advisers privatized state industries through a process of “shock therapy,” wealthy investors bought majority shares in coal mining enterprises and shuttered many mines deemed unprofitable. Using records from the corporate archives of the successor company to the state’s largest coal enterprise, this paper traces the privatization process in Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic as an emblematic case study in social consequences of de-carbonization for energy workers. Under socialism, the state coal mining enterprise was sprawling; hundreds of houses, tens of thousands of apartments, dozens of cafeterias, clinics and hospitals, laundries, recreation centers, hotels, bus depots, dormitories, a travel agency, and even a seaside campground in Bulgaria, all available for free or at extremely low cost to energy workers and their families. The mine’s post-1989 owners concluded that these services must be “converted to a profit-making basis” and, in the process, transformed from rights to commodities.

This paper argues that the privatization process forced government officials, foreign economic advisers, and miners to resolve deep ontological questions: What is a coal mine? Who is a coal miner? Each group had a different answer arising from their divergent assumptions of what elements of the economy and human behavior are “natural.” Miners rejected the idea that economic competition is a natural human (and, indeed, manly) endeavor, arguing instead that “every man naturally seeks certainty in all spheres of life.” This paper treats the process of de-carbonization in post-socialist Czechoslovakia as an ambiguous transition. Cleaner energy and a healthier environment came yoked to new and profound uncertainty for energy workers, in which services workers had long taken as their right—housing, light, heat, leisure, medical care—became governed by the market. In the process, unemployment, homelessness, and poverty, once unimaginable to energy workers, became common.

Julia Mead is an environmental historian of Eastern Europe. She is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Chicago. Her dissertation, “Socialist Rust Belt: Energy, Masculinity, and the End of Czechoslovak Socialism” traces the rise and fall of the Czechoslovak coal industry from 1948-2004 and its relationship to changing norms of masculinity.

poster for Friends in High Places, October 2023 CEGU Event with Megan Black and Elizabeth Chatterjee

CEGU Event, CEGU Colloquium

Megan Black, MIT

Elizabeth Chatterjee, University of Chicago (discussant)

Friday, October 27, 2023
12:00–1:30pm CT
Room 142, 1155 E. 60th St.

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The talk will examine how Friends of the Earth helped make Crested Butte, Colorado's fight against the multinational mining firm AMAX a household name in the 1970s (while neglecting to provide the same level of dug-in support to other communities that, unlike this town, were not inhabited by a nature-seeking group of white elites), asking about the possibilities and limitations of multiscalar activism seeking to move from local to global.

This event is co-sponsored by International House. Please note, this event will take place in person only. A recording will be made available shortly afterwards.

poster for October 20, 2023 CEGU Colloquium with Elaine Colligan

CEGU Colloquium

Elaine Colligan, Ph.D. Student in Political Science

Friday, October 20, 2023
12:00–2:00pm CT
Room 142, 1155 E. 60th St.

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In a moment of world-destroying environmental breakdown, political actors are increasingly claiming that nature should have rights. What are the political stakes of these claims? Against their scholarly critics, who contend that extending rights to nature is a philosophically incoherent idea and thus politically ineffective, I contend that when political actors claim that nature should have rights, they are not attempting to extend rights to a new class of subjects but potentially transforming the concept of rights. This is not to say that nature simply can have rights; I agree that nature’s rights encounter “conceptual strain," both hold that this does not entail that nature’s rights could never “make sense.” If we understand nature’s rights not as a pre-linguistic and pre-political concept, but rather as an everyday practice of making political claims, we can see how these performative acts of democratic persuasion might make sense anew. Innovating at the fuzzy boundary between the rule-bound and radically open character of language, claims that nature should have rights defamiliarize the grammar of both rights and nature.

Poster for Sarah Newman book launch event on October 11, 2023

Co-sponsored Event, CEGU Colloquium

Sarah Newman, Claudia Brittenham, Pauline Goul, and Mariana Petry Cabral

Wednesday, October 11, 2023
5:00pm CT
Assembly Hall, International House (1414 E. 59th St.)

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Garbage is often assumed to be an inevitable part and problem of human existence. But when did people actually come to think of things as “trash”—as becoming worthless over time or through use, as having an end?

Unmaking Waste tackles these questions through a long-term, cross-cultural approach. Drawing on archaeological finds, historical documents, and ethnographic observations to examine Europe, the United States, and Central America from prehistory to the present, Sarah Newman traces how different ideas about waste took shape in different times and places. Newman examines what people consider to be “waste” and how they interact with it, as well as what happens when different perceptions of trash come into conflict. Conceptions of waste have shaped forms of reuse and renewal in ancient Mesoamerica, early modern ideas of civility and forced religious conversion in New Spain, and even the modern discipline of archaeology. Newman argues that centuries of assumptions imposed on other places, times, and peoples need to be rethought. This book is not only a broad reconsideration of waste; it is also a call for new forms of archaeology that do not take garbage for granted. Unmaking Waste reveals that waste is not—and never has been—an obvious or universal concept.

Please join CEGU, the Center for International Social Science Research (CISSR), and the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) for a roundtable discussion and reception with the author at International House.

September 28, 2023 CEGU Colloquium Poster

CEGU Colloquium

Yiyun Peng, Postdoctoral Fellow in History

Thursday, September 28, 2023
4:00pm CT

John Hope Franklin Room, SSRB
(Room 224, 1126 E. 59th St.)

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How did uplands, often presumed inhospitable to agriculture, set limits to and provide opportunities for the cultivation of crops? How did mountain people address the difficulties and utilize and shape the upland environment when cultivating hill- and mountainsides? This article goes beyond two lines of well-established scholarship on upland cultivation in general: one that focuses on typically mountain businesses including lumbering, mining, and hunting; the other on environmental degradation as the result of agricultural cultivation. Instead, by focusing on aspects such as infertility, limited water supply, cold temperature, and elevation in late imperial upland Southeast China, this article discusses the ways in which the agricultural cultivators made efforts to deal with the unforgiving environment. It also reveals how the cultivators utilized various seemingly adverse elements in the uplands, such as cliffs and shadowed space, to their advantage.

By the sixteenth century, most of the fertile bottomland in the valleys and basins and some of the easily accessible hillsides in upland Southeast China had been cultivated into paddy fields. Thereafter, against the context of rapid population growth, a large number of people sojourned in this region and went to great lengths to cultivate deep mountains with food and cash crops, including indigo, tobacco, and New World food crops. Through a close examination of the materiality of mountains and the technicality of mountain people’s cultivation activities, this article contributes to a better understanding of making a living in this complex environment through agriculture.

Yiyun Peng received her PhD in history from Cornell University in August 2023 and joined the Department of History at UChicago after graduation as a postdoctoral fellow. She is mainly interested in environmental history, the history of technology, and economic history. While her main focus is on China, she has also been doing research on Southeast Asia, in particular the Malay world. Her dissertation works on a few cash crops and the handicraft industries processing them into commodities—indigo dye, bamboo paper, tobacco, and ramie (a fiber plant) cloth—led to a herbaceous revolution in upland Southeast China from the sixteenth to the mid-twentieth century, which profoundly transformed the region’s environment and society. The dissertation is a winner of the Messenger Chalmers Prize for the best dissertation in the Department of History at Cornell University.

EVENTS: 2022–23

4/14: Jarrod Hore at the Environmental Studies Workshop (poster)

Environmental Studies Workshop

Carboniferous Imaginaries in the South: Colonial Surveying and the Fate of Fossil Energy

Jarrod Hore, University of New South Wales

Friday, April 14, 2023
12:00pm CT

Room 103, Wieboldt Hall
1050 E. 59th St.

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Geoscientists now routinely examine the movement of continental blocks over deep time to glean information about the possible location of valuable resources. This practice was initially developed and perfected in the nineteenth century through engagements with fossil deposits – coal, gas, and petroleum reserves – and scaled up to global proportions by surveyors working in the southern hemisphere. In this period geologists identified conformities that link fossil fuels in the Paraná basin in Brazil to the Bowen basin of Queensland, through the Karoo basin of South Africa and the original Gondwana coal measures of India. Defined by the distinguishable Glossopteris fossil leaf, southern coal deposits are an energy network in deep time, latterly reinvented as a resource for imperialism, colonialism, and modernization from the nineteenth century.

This paper examines how these resources were conceived during this initial moment of reinvention and begins to map the uses to which they were put. Starting in the late nineteenth century, when colonial geological surveys first began to quantify the extent and value of these southern hemisphere coal basins, the paper explores the interests that surveyors and geologists pursued in the strata and the cultures of exploitation and extraction that developed in the wake of their study. Geologists in India, Australia, Southern Africa, and South America all worked intimately with related carboniferous stratigraphies. By the early twentieth century geologists had concluded, in the terms of Lewis Leigh Fermor (1880-1954), that the key difference between south and north was the considerable fossil energy wealth that the former presented to the latter. These geologists and their patrons in government and business therefore framed the remnants of the supercontinent of Gondwanaland as a vast energy source for various imperial projects.

During the late nineteenth century the resources of the former supercontinent energized imaginations but in the twentieth century they began to support economies. At least in its Permian permutations, ‘Gondwanaland’ came to be associated with coal, and therefore to modernity, wealth production, energy transitions, and to a modern geological south. According to a recent BP report, southern hemisphere deposits still make up about 24.4% of known reserves of high-grade anthracite. In India the Gondwana coalfields make up about 98% of remaining coal reserves. These deposits have been highly significant to industrial and economic development across the global south. By elaborating on this modern history, this paper challenges a (north) Atlantic-oriented history of fossil-fueled industrialization. An antipodean focus on Gondwanaland helps us consider the place of southern sources of fossil energy in nineteenth and twentieth-century growth trends. This offers up the possibility of a new history of fossil energy, coal, and global capitalism rooted firmly in southern geographies, temporalities, and political economies.

Jarrod Hore is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of New South Wales, Sydney and Co-Director of the New Earth Histories Research Group. He is a historian of environments, geologies, and photographies and the author of Visions of Nature: How Landscape Photography Shaped Settler Colonialism (University of California Press, 2022). His current project investigates the underpinnings of modern earth science in a series of geological surveys in late nineteenth century India, Australia, South Africa, Brazil, and Argentina.

Poster for Energy Histories and Geographies CEGU Event, February 2022

Environmental Studies Workshop

Did the Earth Move for You? Human Geological Agency and the Koyna Earthquake of 1967

Sachaet Pandey, University of Chicago
Elizabeth Chatterjee, University of Chicago

Friday, December 2, 2022
12:00pm CT
SSRB Tea Room (1126 E. 59th St.)

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On December 11, 1967, a devastating earthquake flattened the little town of Koynanagar in Maharashtra, western India. Fingers immediately pointed at the nearby Koyna hydroelectric dam, one of India's largest even today. Prompting domestic and international inquests, the Koyna earthquake became perhaps the world’s most famous and widely attested case of reservoir-induced seismicity. As postcolonial energy projects reached newly massive scales, humans appeared to be influencing the deep Earth itself. This paper uses the history of the Koyna Dam to explore transforming understandings of human geological agency and the ecological ramifications of economic development. Through the dam, energy infrastructures appeared to connect directly to deep history and the deep Earth, presaging debates over the Anthropocene and human powers to both generate and master natural hazards at a newly planetary scale.

Environmental Studies Workshop

Bathsheba Demuth, Brown University
Matthew Johnson, Harvard University
Owain Lawson, University of Toronto
Jen Rose Smith, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Alexander Arroyo, University of Chicago (moderator)
Elizabeth Chatterjee, University of Chicago (moderator)

Friday, November 18, 2022
12:00pm CT
Harper 104 (1116 E. 59th St.)

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The historical geographies of extractivism and empire cut across the division between “Global North” and “Global South.” This roundtable brings together scholars working on the Russian and North American Arctic, Brazil, and Lebanon for a conversation across regions rarely placed in the same frame. We will trace the surprising parallels and uncanny connections between histories of energy extraction and ecological transformation on very different colonial and capitalist resource frontiers. We will explore, too, sources of hope: the nodes of resistance and alternative imaginaries generated by projects of Indigenous and decolonial worldmaking.

This session of the Environmental Studies Workshop is co-sponsored by the Urban Theory Lab and the Neubauer Collegium Project on Fossil Capitalism on the Global South.

Poster for Energy Histories and Geographies CEGU Event, February 2022

Environmental Studies Workshop

Green Places, Green Aesthetics: (Re)producing Vulnerability and the Spatial Politics of Street Tree Planning in Chicago

Nina Olney, University of Chicago

Friday, November 4, 2022
12:00pm CT
SSRB Tea Room (1126 E. 59th St.)

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The recently-announced Our Roots Chicago plan from Mayor Lori Lightfoot in Chicago, intended to plant an additional 75 thousand trees in ‘vulnerable’ neighborhoods, was met with surprise controversy when several community organizations protested what they deemed to be the potential for environmental gentrification. Troubling the notion of trees as ‘ahistorical’ or ‘apolitical,’ this paper examines how Chicago residents, in pointing to the ways in which the planting of new trees may not be truly sustainable for their communities, reveal deeper connections between the processes of sustainable development and regimes of racial hierarchy in America’s cities. Expanding on Brandi Summers’ work on “Black aesthetic emplacement,” this paper examines how debates around sustainability become the place of contestation over the modern city, wherein urban policymakers turn to a ‘green aesthetic,’ concealing larger histories of environmental injustice, attaching symbols of sustainability to spatialized forms, and greening the image of the neighborhood—making it more appealing to private investment—rather than greening the neighborhood itself.

Nina Olney is an Instructional Assistant in the Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization (CEGU) and a recent graduate of the MAPSS program concentrating in Anthropology. Her research examines green gentrification in Chicago, specifically analyzing the role of street tree planning in transforming neighborhoods in terms of aesthetics, vulnerability, and access. Drawing on theories of racial capitalism, political ecology, and critical geography, her work centers the unseen elements of urban environments to trace a larger history of nature as property.