Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Guest Post: Water, Water, Everywhere
by Alexis Winter

Today’s post comes from Alexis Winter, a colleague from The Field Museum and now at UIC, whose background is also in cultural anthropology. A huge thanks to Lexy for contributing the first guest post!

I first began exploring the cultural side of environmental sustainability when I joined Jenny at The Field Museum, helping out with two separate but related projects: the final ethnographic studies engaging Chicago communities in the city’s climate action plan, and the Chicago Community Climate Action Toolkit. This work deeply enriched my understanding of Chicago and broadened my understanding of the concept of sustainability. It was also a lot of fun--such a good time, in fact, that I decided to apply to graduate school in public/applied anthropology, with a focus on environment.

In my search for graduate programs, I found so many university faculty working on fascinating and innovative research projects examining environmental issues through an anthropological lens. Coincidentally, several of the projects that caught my eye all had to do with, in some way or another, water. Here’s a sampling, from schools all across the country:

1. The Community Voice Project: RiverStories (led by Dr. Nina Shapiro-Perl, American University)
Dr. Shapiro-Perl’s documentary film students worked closely with residents of southeast Washington, D.C., who care for the Anacostia, D.C.’s “other” (much more polluted) river, to produce digital stories about their experiences. Rodney Stotts’ story explores the deeply personal reasons he’s grown so attached to caring for the Anacostia and the falcons that live in the area.

2. Politics and Perceptions of Water in Tampa Bay (led by Dr. Rebecca Zarger, University of South Florida)
These researchers want to understand how social factors, especially power relationships and cultural constructions of place, contribute to wetland change. I was drawn to this project in part because of my research for The Field Museum in the Kankakee River Basin, 75 miles south of Chicago, where the river is such a central and powerful component of residents’ attachment to their place. (And I’ve become much more interested in Florida’s wetlands since learning that the Grand Kankakee Marsh, which once covered between 50,000 and a million acres of northern Illinois and Indiana, was called the “Everglades of the North.” A great documentary about the Marsh is screening soon in Chicago--check it out!)

3. Culture and Resource Management on the Chesapeake Bay (led by Dr. Michael Paolisso, University of Maryland)
This is a series of linked projects, some short-term, some long-term, delving into a wide range of topics including heritage, work, gender, climate change, conservation, and invasive species. I’m especially intrigued by their work on harmful algal blooms that caused what local media dubbed “Pfiesteria hysteria.” The researchers looked at the cultural models of environment that various groups (e.g. farmers, environmentalists, fishermen) used to understand the Pfiesteria algal blooms, and how these models influenced the decisions they made in response to the crisis.

It’s been my observation that water--more specifically water conservation--tends not to be top-of-mind for Chicagoans, who live next to the largest surface freshwater system on Earth. In my research for The Field Museum in 2011, I noticed that in discussions of climate change, flooding consistently came up more often than droughts did. (This wasn’t true in all the studies, however: the Museum’s 2010 report on Pilsen’s Mexican community, which Jenny highlighted in a previous post, is a notable exception.)

But with 2012’s drought, the worst in the Midwest in over 50 years, this tendency could be changing. And as Chicagoans begin to think and talk more about water scarcity and conservation, we may want to take a look at other cities around the country and the tools and models they’ve developed for examining cultural beliefs and attitudes around water.

Some food for thought--please comment:
1. Which of these projects stands out to you? How might it be applied here in Chicago--or are there already similar projects underway here?
2. What other environmental issues might not necessarily be top-of-mind in the Midwest, but should be discussed? Why?
3. What creative environmental initiatives are faculty or whole departments in Chicago (or the Midwest) undertaking?