|Publisher:||University of California Press|
|Series:||Critical Environments: Nature, Science, and Politics , #7|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I first traveled to The Bahamas in the summer of 2002 to work on an interdisciplinary research project funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). I was a twenty-one-year-old undergraduate, and my assignment was to work with a team of U.S. researchers to administer pilot surveys to people we had never met in a place most of us had never been. Our fieldwork took place in Cherokee Sound on the southeast coast of the island of Abaco, a small settlement of fewer than two hundred households. In Cherokee we administered surveys, studied seasonal fishing practices, and documented the patterns of daily life we were fortunate enough to participate in for a few short weeks. At that time it seemed the kind of one-off international visit — a kind of "study abroad" program — that often accompanies U.S. higher education. Yet many years later, after many trips to The Bahamas, I vividly remember that summer. It was a kind of beginning.
Cherokee was selected by the study designers for a variety of reasons: its history of settlement "interaction" with the marine environment over generations of fishing and boat building; its proximity to a range of what the project termed "ecological zones," including the deep-ocean mangrove stands, coral reef systems, blue hole caves, shallow-water flats, and pine forests; the community's shared descent from white British Loyalists; and the fact that few tourists visited and few people moved away from the settlement. I was told this meant that most interviewees were representative of the community and had not been greatly influenced by life outside. Cherokee was a model island fishing community. I would soon find, however, that these parameters explained very little about life there.
Two brothers, Sam and Steve, stood out vividly in the settlement. They were often found on the small wooden dock adjacent to Sam's house. I was shy and unaccustomed to their sharp-eyed scrutiny, wry laughter, and sun-leathered skin. Their dock was worn and ramshackle, and when I first met them I had yet to recognize that the stained structure built of scavenged boards and plywood was a fish-cleaning table, scoured by seasons of use. Now tables like these are one of the first things I look for as a marker of an active fishing settlement.
My notes detail walking along the nearby shore, following children visiting from Nassau. Because they summered in Cherokee with grandparents, they were familiar with littoral and mangrove life. The loved to chase "bonga" in the shallows, a small and darting fish that blew itself up into a great round ball when startled. They also showed me how to excite the snapper schooling at the end of the settlement's long dock. Black bars appeared on the heads of these fish when feeding, and the children often threw them bread to spark this transformation.
Another fisher named Charlie spent his summer laying fish pots, collecting conch, and spearing grouper and hogfish on the reefs. He was loud and easily amused, often walking barefoot and shirtless around the settlement, perfectly at home. He sold some of this catch locally, ate some of it, and gave a lot of it away to neighbors. It was from his boat that I caught my first small reef fish while handlining over the side, and on his boat that I first learned the local names for the species of snapper, grouper, and reef fish that aggregate on the coral heads around the island. At that time Charlie was in love with a visitor from the United States, a woman who seasonally rented one of the few guest houses in Cherokee with her two children. Her children adored him. He would take them fishing, cooking their catch for dinner.
Though he fished every day, I soon realized that Charlie was on vacation. Most of his summer fishing was pure pleasure. For Charlie these summer days of small boats, fish scales, and conch shells were a way of life but not a living. Commercial crawfishing on a cooperatively owned smack boat between August and March was his primary vocation. A number of men in Cherokee were also professional crawfishers, leaving home in the season to join their crews on an island to the east, although none were as garrulous and generous with their summer time as Charlie.
My experience as a research assistant influenced the next phase of my adult life, aligning my future with The Bahamas. My memories are entangled with my field notes from these early years, and I present sketches from those notes here to show how Bahamian island life diverged in form and content from the methodological ordering of the science project I worked for. I had my first taste of global change science (GCS) research on this project while simultaneously awakening to an engagement with sea-based lives. And it was this project that made me skeptical about the capacity of common social-assessment tools to capture the dynamism of the world.
The research project that began in Cherokee Sound was one piece of a larger endeavor designed to study something called biocomplexity. As a scientific term, biocomplexity refers to the complexity inherent in the structure, functioning, and relationality of all living things across scales from cells to microbes to organisms to populations and finally to entire socioecological systems. As a concept within the natural sciences, biocomplexity is seen as a contemporary update to the concept of biodiversity, which more narrowly describes "the variety of plant and animal life in the world or in a particular habitat, a high level of which is usually considered to be important and desirable" for conservation. Biodiversity, as a concept that implies there is tangible evolutionary and even commercial value held in life forms, has been used to extend the reach of international science and capital in the world. And now biocomplexity projects are one of the means by which GCS field research creates research objects amenable to environmental management and commercial enterprise.
This chapter describes the biocomplexity project as a field-based experiment placing scientists and field technicians in situ to approach Bahamian socioecology at the local level. I discuss one of the ways that biocomplexity projects can create the human social worlds they study in the name of social inclusion in ecological research. These social worlds become simplified caricatures of actual social life. Such reductive social caricatures align all too easily with Anthropocene spatial products such as chains of marine protected areas (MPAs). These products have in turn been shaped by prevailing assumptions about tourism and resource management. The end result is that the local people studied by such projects run the risk of losing the richly meaningful relationships they have with the ecology that surrounds them.
Back in 2002 my activities as a social science field technician on a biocomplexity project consisted of performing various "practices of place." These acts included maintaining field notes about settlement life in Cherokee, participating in community activities such as fishing, and conducting structured interviews with human subjects using a preset survey questionnaire. The survey centered around the ways local people individually interacted with the environment, the costs and benefits of doing so, how they thought the local environment changed over time, and their perceptions of marine regulations. My team administered this complicated pilot survey to willing, if slightly bored, Cherokee fishers and their families. After a day of surveying, we compared our experiences around the kitchen table of our rented guest house.
The field team for this pilot study consisted of three young U.S. women in our twenties. We were led by a seasoned field anthropologist and academic who knew Abaco and who had helped design the project with an interdisciplinary team of researchers from several research institutions in the United States and Europe. It was on this trip that I first experienced the ennui that accompanies repetitive field research in an unfamiliar place. The pilot survey instrument — a list of typed multiple-choice questions and scales we carried everywhere we went — became a tool that performed a number of tasks for its users. The survey shielded us from feeling like tourists, but it also put up a barrier between us and the people in the community. It signified that we were not like them because we were there to study them. The survey isolated us from the community, in some ways more than our initial strangeness as foreign visitors.
This biocomplexity survey was cutting-edge for its time. It was an attempt to manifest Anthropocene socioecologics about a given place in quantifiable form. It did this by modifying the standard template of a household socioeconomic survey to include questions about specific forms of "interaction with the environment." The social survey was deemed progressive by the project designers because they felt that preexisting ecological assessments conducted by natural scientists had not adequately incorporated social data, and most social surveys conducted by social scientists did not adequately incorporate the ecological perceptions of respondents. The methodological novelty of this survey, at that time, was the combination of these concerns in one interview template and the integration of the social survey data with ecological data collected in the country as part of the same project.
The survey tool introduced a new form of ecobiopolitics to The Bahamas. Within the survey, interaction with the environment was defined primarily in terms of the targeting of specific species while fishing ("What species do you primarily fish for? When do you fish for that species? Do your target species change over the course of the year? What are your target species in each season?") and secondarily in terms of engaging in specific outdoor activities ("Do you ever engage in the following activities: swimming in the ocean, walking along the shore, collecting in the mangroves? How many times a week do you engage in those activities? Rank these activities in terms of frequency and enjoyment"). While there was room for writing in "other" entries on the survey, the majority of response options were predetermined based on the survey creator's prior research with fishing communities elsewhere. The survey also asked about the legality of fishing practices in terms of knowing, understanding, and obeying fishing regulations, eliciting responses about the awareness of MPAs as a key form of marine management ("Have you ever heard of a marine protected area? Do you know if there are any nearby?").
In terms of practical use, the survey format was highly social. In Cherokee the project's need to survey as many households as possible drove us to approach people we might never have encountered otherwise. In pairs, but most often on our own, we would cautiously approach the front door of a brightly painted house. As welcoming as the colorful paint was, the gates often gave us pause, as did the growling, skinny "potcakes" (a Bahamian breed of street dogs) accompanying some yards. Once we were safe inside, the extent of the forty-question survey meant our encounters were lengthy, causing some respondents to grow increasingly comfortable with our unfamiliar presence in their home. On some visits we sat on floral couches with elderly women, answering questions of our own they posed about our homes in the United States, our parents, our boyfriends, and what it was about The Bahamas we most liked. But while survey questions about illegal fishing practices made some respondents uncomfortable, when I say that the survey isolated the field technicians from the community, I mean that the questions themselves positioned us as interlopers who could learn only what we already wanted to know.
In the summer of 2005 I traveled to The Bahamas to administer another round of surveys for the same project in a new settlement. The survey format had been finalized, and the new location was one of several ultimately surveyed by the project. This time I was sent to the settlement of Tarpum Bay, a fishing community on the island of Eleuthera. This settlement was chosen for its proximity to a prospective MPA that was to become part of a Marine Reserve Network in the country. While Harbour Island at the northern end of Eleuthera is a well-known tourist destination, Tarpum Bay is relatively far from the tourist path. Again the team administered surveys, practicing as random a sampling method as possible in a small community of 230 households. We entered survey data on-site into a computerized database, discussed sampling strategies, and shared information about our daily excursions from our guest house into the settlement.
Yet again the survey created encounters that might not have otherwise taken place. We learned that Traveler's Rest — a wooden shade structure next to the town dock with benches positioned for the breeze — was a prime spot for surveying. We could ask our questions as fishers cleaned their day's catch, brushing stray scales off the survey and out of our hair as we went through the questions. And we had an excuse to hang around the pizza parlor, hoping to survey anyone waiting while their order was made. Our novelty offered more entertainment than the parlor television. Again the survey instrument was both the excuse that validated our presence and the embodiment of our separation from the people of Tarpum Bay.
These trips to the Family Islands of The Bahamas were a taste of GCS research in the Anthropocene, though I wouldn't have thought of them in those terms at the time. I had volunteered to be a "technician of general ideas," who could test a language for reimagining the relationships between people and their environments. These experiences were awkward in the sense that we struggled along with our subjects to understand what the survey questions meant (What is an MPA? What kind of habitat is "hard bottom"?); what answers were acceptable (how frequent is "oftentimes"?); and which stories were relevant to the project and which were not ("The Americans keep coming here with their boats and poaching our fish"). Our desire to please both the project designers and the research subjects meant long periods of wrestling with the software and long conversations about the meaning of responses. We learned that the answers to our questions could not be easily transformed into preset categories of the survey. Making our conversations with islanders "empirical" meant transforming their wide-ranging stories, asides, and cautious statements into "data" that could be collated and compared. We walked the knife edge between artifice and science that lies at the heart of all fieldwork. During these field seasons I began to ruminate on the survey tool and the relationship between surveyor and surveyed. On one hand, field technicians have little time to develop rapport between themselves and the people they survey because there is pressure to collect as many surveys as possible in a short time span. Researchers can feel conspicuous, foreign, and presumptuous for approaching local people and asking them to participate in the project and sign the consent forms mandated by U.S. human subjects–research protocols. On the other hand, surveys bring researchers into public meeting places and private homes, they announce researcher presence in settlements, and they open doors into arenas of public controversy that might not otherwise come up in conversations between citizens and visitors. As representatives of scientific projects that target communities, visiting field research technicians are a perpetual part of the tension between curiosity and resentment these projects inspire in islanders.
These early biocomplexity project experiences in The Bahamas would come to shape both my interest in contemporary anthropology and my ideas for this book. Through this field project and its survey technology, I began to recognize the subtle ways in which The Bahamas was scientifically manipulated for the Anthropocene. I also began to see how these projects could lay the groundwork for the creation of Anthropocene tourism products.
BIOCOMPLEXITY IN THEORY AND PRACTICE
How did biocomplexity become a concept that launched years' worth of U.S. social survey collection in small Bahamian settlements, transforming the archipelago as a destination for interdisciplinary socioecological research? To answer that question we must begin far from the Bahama Islands, in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1998, at a plenary session of the forty-ninth annual meeting of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. Rita Colwell, the director-designate of the NSF, addressed an audience of researchers, describing biocomplexity as a major new research agenda. Colwell explained biocomplexity as the twenty-first-century response to the increasing vulnerability of the planet in the face of anthropogenic degradation. She defined the term as the chemical, biological, and social interactions of the earth's systems that must be studied to solve challenges for future planetary sustainability.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Destination Anthropocene"
Copyright © 2019 Amelia Moore.
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