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by Jieun Cho, Postdoctoral Associate, APSI

How might we inhabit the planet in more sustainable ways when the physical and conceptual foundations for doing so are being challenged? This is the question that brought an interdisciplinary group of scholars together at Duke, for a one-day symposium entitled “The Politics of Dwelling in the Anthropocene.”

The purpose of this event was to foster dialogue around dwelling and place for geo-social realities of our time. The presentations were organized into three panels, each focusing on the themes of ecological ruins, nuclear aftermaths, and scientific terrains.

This post provides a glimpse into the vibrant conversations that happened that day.

Panel 1: Dwelling in Ecological Ruins

The first panel, “Dwelling in Ecological Ruins” moderated by Dr. Ralph Litzinger, investigated the ecological depth of “land” by tracking its recent transformation in the national form. Dr. Matthew Shutzer’s presentation brought us to Jharia coal fields, India's “coal capital,” where mine fires have been burning for almost a century. Although the property relations that subjected the underground to coal production chains were structured under British colonial regime, investigating a “forensics of fire” demands one to go beyond explaining structural changes of the regime by mapping the scales of coal mining in a cartographic sense, he pointed out. What keeps Jharia’s mine fires burning?

In the 1930s, when the fires were first brought to the court, they were ruled as an “act of god” due to the impossibility of attributing culpability to any specific causality. Such refusal of human culpability under colonial rule later enabled a whole new arrangement in the national form of India’s government, such as the Jharia Master Plan. By juxtaposing these otherwise disconnected histories, Shutzer invited us to pay attention to interlocking scales which together have managed to keep opencast mining practices in place.

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Two people wearing dark jackets sitting at a table
(l-r) Huatse Gyal and Matthew Shutzer

The impact of such development far exceeds the legal, political, and economic understandings of causality and culpability, contaminating water cycles, creating black carbon, changing monsoon precipitation, and shaping the labor and life of both indigenous and migrant populations on the ground. To dwell in this landscape means to watch how the fires remake life-sustaining processes while bearing hints at decolonial modes of world-making amidst carbon-powered regimes.

Dr. Huatse Gyal similarly provoked conflicting scales of relations that animate lives and livelihoods in his field site in the Tibetan Plateau. In his work, ecological ruins have to do with the rise of the national form of China. Key to subjecting the land and its people to the national form is to sever their connections which have been cultivated for thousands of years. The pastoralist livelihoods cannot be reduced to simple extraction of resources; rather, they are seen as sustainable, time-proven modes of dwelling. They have come under threat through various strategies to promote the national political economy, for example, resettlement programs, range fencing, and schooling policies.

What makes such operations possible, Gyal emphasized, is internal reworkings of peoplehood: what he calls the “political production of human inferiority.” Examples abound. Despite its long-held sustainability, Tibetan herding is frequently regarded as wearing out natural resources which are seen to belong to the national state. Children, as Gyal experienced himself, are sent to boarding schools where they internalize hatred and shame towards their own culture, parents, and elders as poor and uneducated.

The communal efforts to inhabit the landscape under these circumstances involve restoring connections between animals, plants, and people. Gyal introduced examples such as reseeding through yaks, respected as long-time inhabitants of the land, and bringing children to high hills to claim their own flower species, allowing them to explore, train their eyes, and engage with elders’ ecological knowledge. The politics of dwelling, here, happens as much on the subjective, psychological, and intergenerational level as it does on the land itself.

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A graduate student engages the panel with a question

Panel 2: Dwelling in Nuclear Aftermaths

The second panel, “Dwelling in Nuclear Aftermaths,” moderated by Dr. Anne Allison, addressed the material conditions created by radiation (artificial radionuclides) in particular. My presentation examined the pervasive patchiness of radiation in Fukushima by focusing on how residents navigate the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. While official discussions of the disaster largely recapitulate the controlled recovery through risk management practices, such an approach is premised on the self-referential logic of the manageability of radiation in the risk form.

The politics of nuclear materiality, in this sense of concrete manageability or managed concreteness, is best captured as risk politics, where the disaster’s impact is accounted for by indexing, mapping, and regulating irradiated environments for the sake of (re)distributing its risk in the future tense. The patchy presence of radiation resists such neat “atomic models of radiation,” as I showed through human-radiation encounters in what are deemed as “non-nuclear,” everyday places in central Fukushima.

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Two people sitting at a table with microphones and a green plant in a blue bowl in the background
(l-r) Jieun Cho and Shannon Cram

In my example of a preschool community, people found ways to shelter dreams and aspirations within irradiated landscapes without disavowing the sociotechnical conditions that forced them into living in such environments. After a period of intense desperation, alienation, and disorientation following the fallout, encounters with patchy radiation signified less a deserted future but more a possibility for dwelling otherwise. This form of nuclear politics is rooted in lived social-ecological bonds with place, where efforts to care for the vulnerable, restore connections, and imagine the future may reconfigure what it means to live within the entangled aftermath of the fallout and its management.

In her talk, Dr. Shannon Cram examined how the regulatory framework of “acceptable risk” shapes such spaces as the Hanford Nuclear Site, the largest environmental remediation project in the U.S. For Cram, the politics of dwelling in nuclear aftermaths centers around what conditions of living with toxic contamination are rendered as possible or impossible. The structure of possibilities, traced through her critiques of the regulatory framework, is full of ambiguity and contradiction.

Based on her lifetime activism, decade-long policy work, and personal reflections, Cram has come to understand that these contradictions are not problems to be resolved for good any more than cleanup can make radiation go away. Instead, she told us, they exist as avenues for critical discussions. When we trace this tension by investigating what social relations condition what we know and what we don’t know, “other” possibilities of cleanup may emerge “alongside a whole new set of politics.”

Living in a nuclear age, she argued, demands more rigorous critical engagement so that we take the terms of cleanup seriously and grapple with how to make them better, while acknowledging that the very meaning or ultimate result of such actions can never be fully known. Rather than uncritically manipulating, rationalizing, and optimizing a sum of risks through unidentified constructs such as the “statistical person,” Cram emphasized that we can change many things by asking, for example, how then we might care for the statistical person in the abstractions it makes possible.

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Minkang Hao (center) contributes to the exchange

Panel 3: Dwelling in Scientific Terrains

The third panel, “Dwelling in Scientific Terrains,” moderated by Dr. Prasenjit Duara, brought us closer to how science as a historical mode of knowledge and action could create inspirations for better modes of dwelling. Dr. Nicole Barnes discussed the broad impact of China’s “toilet revolution” within today’s geopolitical landscape. Modern flush infrastructure is being built rapidly across the country, especially rural areas. This “revolution” aims to modernize the citizenry to dispel China’s image of being “backward,” a label that is often associated with the use of squatter toilets as opposed to flush toilets.

Barnes showed how toilet designs became signifiers for politics around modern ideas of hygiene, framing differences such as gender, race, and class in a new light, despite the environmental impact of flush toilets. This is where China’s nightsoil (a euphemism for humanure) system may prove valuable to create less polluting and less alienating ways for ecologically better human waste management. For a millennium, nightsoil served as a sustainable fertilizer that allowed farmers to replenish soils and feed large populations in what are often dismissed as “backward” regions.

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Two people seated at a table with microphones and a laptop
(l-r) Albert L. Park and Nicole Barnes

While critically examining the spread of diseases like cholera and the labor exploitation of nightsoil porters, Dr. Barnes proposed combining scientific knowledge from the 19th and 20th century could contribute to a socially and ecologically sound solution with regard to contemporary crises, in particular, soil depletion and fresh water shortages. Ultimately, she urged us to reconsider our understanding of “waste” by exploring historical examples of sustainable waste management practices and their potential to inform current approaches to dwelling.

Dr. Albert L. Park spoke about how Japanese colonial agricultural science in Korea served to emphasize human authority and domination over the non-human world. Focusing on the Suwŏn Agricultural Experiment Station, he examined how scientific practices like integrative mapping, crop experimentation, and energy extraction facilitated the material conversion and reordering of Korean landscapes, bodies, and ecologies to align with imperial capitalist modernization.

He argued that agricultural science did not merely extract resources, but enacted hierarchical value systems that disrupted indigenous modes of dwelling and their reciprocity with nature. By situating science as both an epistemological and material force, the presentation illuminated how “science” could be understood as a form of dwelling practice, remaking the parameters of what constituted legitimate, powerful, and future-oriented ways of inhabiting and negotiating human-environment relations in the Japan-occupied Korean peninsula.

Wrapping Up

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A person in a dark shirt standing at a podium with a laptop
Prasenjit Duara presents closing thoughts

Dr. Prasenjit Duara began his concluding remarks by pointing out that “dwelling” and “habitability” present disparate frameworks for scrutinizing the planetary condition today. In the usage of Latour and Chakrabarty, habitability refers to the holistic earth system framework where humans conduct life that causes the least disturbance to the balance of the various earth systems and without the teleological goal of mastering nature. Dwelling, as developed by Heidegger, suggests a sense of place located within sense-making practices with which the self is familiar. Emerging from disasters, this conception of dwelling may well be most relevant to the symposium.

Umwelt—the sensory modes of interaction with the environment that shape the existential unfolding of life for all beings—is key. All the presentations, Dr. Duara noted, highlighted how humans have been losing umwelt at a time when their modes of living are overshadowed by teleological regimes of expanding habitability in its narrow definition. The logics of extractive, militarized, and techno-scientific regimes have weakened and damaged umwelt for indigenous animals, plants, and human communities alike. Yet, he viewed, each presentation also demonstrated how decolonial refusals of these alienating logics can also be germinated through sense-making practices from within their own complexities.

Reflections

At this symposium, we gathered to ask how anthropogenic activities both jeopardize and constitute the very grounds of our more-than-human coexistence. All presenters illuminated heterogeneous yet overlapping conditions of our time, from underground extractivism to dispossession through arranged fences and houses, nuclear optimization and remediation, microbial ecologies of environmental pollution, and multispecies engineering through chemical interventions.

The richness of interdisciplinary dialogue transported us to landscapes as they are redescribed as multiply lived, storied, and contested with both destructive and restorative possibilities. What particularly impressed me was the ways in which such reckonings of planetary conditions and possibilities were grounded in distinctive methodological commitments.

Put together, the presenters offered refreshing ways to conceptualize the environment not just as inert backdrops of historical progress, but as entangled grounds for potential survival, even when they continue to be shaped by anthropocentric logics of environment-making. Only through such critical dialogue can we begin to imagine the terms, stakes, and conditions of politics as a planetary endeavor—an intensively human yet more-than-human question of how to dwell together and better.