Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization

Division of Social Sciences, The University of Chicago

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.