AGU: Welcome to the “eugenicene”

AGU: Welcome to the “eugenicene”

In this series of posts, I provide an account of my new relationship with the American Geophysical Union (the largest community of earth & space scientists) as an anthropologist who is doing inter-disciplinary research in the Lumbee Tribe after Hurricane Matthew (2016). Thank you to Matthew Thompson for inviting me to write with Anthrodendum. [“Syringes in Rocks” photo credit: [email protected] (2009); “Chumash Firefighters” photo credit: http://www.santaynezchumash.org/fire.html]

The concept of the “anthropocene” seems like a way for us (the big collective “us”) to get together & narcissistically describe how we have affected the earth since 1950…how what we have done will show up in the earth’s crust. Your uncle says, “We have eaten lots of chicken wings at football games & family reunions, so the chicken bones will probably show up.” So scientists add your uncle’s observations to the list of markers.  Your cousin says “we love coca-cola, and those empty bottles will show up too.” Scientists use plastic soda bottles as markers. In reading articles about how the anthropocene shows up, we seem unwilling to inspect how the residue of our life will really look.

So, here, let me provide an alternative name for the epoch that we live in: eugenicene.

eugenicene (n): the current planetary age; the period during which policies & products of corporations & government work in tandem to systemically abandon & manipulate the lives of marginalized human communities.

What does the euginicene look like? In the eugenicene, the earth’s crust will be consistently speckled with amber bottles from CVS, Walgreens, and Costco Pharmacies from the 1950s until today. Oh, we will also see the plastic syringes from the on again-off again heroin epidemic speckled within the rocks. Oh, and we can’t forget the plastic containers that have been used to package lard and other “commodities” for Native American reservation communities. What about the cellophane from all those packages of corporately crafted cigarettes? They will help the earth’s crust sparkle.

My point here is that the materials that will show up in the earth’s crust will signify processes, policies, and economics engineered to destroy humans.

In 1904, Francis Galton spoke before the British Sociological Society:

The aim of eugenics is to represent each class or sect by its best specimens; that done, to leave them [alone] to work out their common civilization [survival] in their own way […] Let us for a moment suppose that the practice of eugenics should hereafter raise the average quality of our nation to that of its better moiety [part] at the present day, and consider the gain.

Galton’s vision of eugenics contained a powerful socialization of cognitive dissonance: say that these “classes or sects” are left alone, but in reality manufacture their demise in hands-on ways. The magic of eugenics is that it makes members of society who live comfortably think that the humans who suffer/die via eugenic policies are dying in unfortunate and/or inevitable circumstances.

Looming questions remain: How do we see eugenics policies within the panic of global climate change? That is, if we are all vulnerable vis-à-vis melting polar caps and unprecedented “super storms”, are there people who have been made to be more vulnerable? Is this epoch, in its totality, defined by the processes, policies, & geographies meant to rid society of particular human communities?

Back in October 2017, Luisa Black wrote an online article titled “Hurricanes Disproportionately Harm Communities of Color”. After Hurricane Katrina (2005), corporately owned news agencies regularly featured Black citizens of Louisiana requesting justice from state and federal officials. Many of the journalistic stories that came out post-Hurricane Katrina were quasi-ethnographic narratives of how African Americans had been systematically placed in the way of Katrina over several centuries. Unfortunately, these same news agencies didn’t place Native American suffering in Louisiana on a national stage, which actually wasn’t surprising since governments & oil corporations had spent the last few decades destroying Native American tribal lands in the process of moving/removing oil from the gulf coast United States.

In October 2016, in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, I began thinking about the intersections of Native American survival, state/federal governments, and corporations. My family spent weeks gathering supplies – from bath towels, to cereal, to everything in between – and we took them to various people in the Lumbee Tribe. Along the way, we examined how the Lumbee story was being told. There were the anger-creating stories that seemed isolated, like that of a deaf Lumbee man who, in the midst of the hurricane passing through the community, was shot by the North Carolina Highway Patrol. But then there were what seemed like purposeful silences.

Here is one:

When Hurricane Matthew made its trek through the Caribbean, President Obama held a special news conference in which he pointed out the long history of suffering in Haiti. However, when the Lumbee Tribe (the largest Native American community east of the Mississippi River) began to drown in Hurricane Matthew just days later, Obama said nothing about our nation. And it gets a bit stranger. In the days after Matthew’s winds calmed, the Trump/Pence campaign bus showed up with supplies. Trump’s actions were quite valuable in the eyes of the Lumbee Tribe. Indeed, Obama’s silence and Trump’s humanitarian activity in eastern North Carolina may have played a significant role in Donald Trump’s winning North Carolina (a pivotal state!) in the 2016 presidential election.

The actions of indigenous peoples & the actions that indigenous peoples expect towards their communities are often overshadowed by America’s fascination with where indigenous people live. Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places (1996) states his concern that we (anthropologists) don’t know what people “make of places”. He argues that we haven’t paid attention to “sense of place”. In a subsequent publication, Karen Blu (anthropologist & wife of anthropologist Clifford Geertz) applied Basso’s place-centered theoretical framework to the Lumbee Tribe, but she was mistaken. In the Lumbee Tribe, when you talk to someone on the phone you ask “what’chu doing?” before you ask “where you at?”. Sense of place is almost always captured in the actions of Lumbee people going to those places, acting in those places, and struggling with those places. Place is sort of like an actor…to struggle against, with, and for.

These were important lessons as I began a research relationship with a team of environmental scientists in November 2016. As we developed an NSF RAPID research proposal, we agreed that what we planned to do must be relational. We weren’t entering a field-site void of complicated human relationships. We looked at Hurricane Matthew as the newest layer atop a multi-layered history of Lumbee people being pushed into hazardous environments & surrounded with poisonous materials. Our scientific data was sure to become part of century-old political battles for sovereignty & survival in a place that contains anxieties related to state-sponsored and corporate-sponsored eugenics projects that Lumbee people continue to actively fight.

Recent Southern California wildfires remind me of the tensions between indigenous suffering, geophysical change, & senses of place in the Lumbee community. As the fires in Southern California multiplied, Chumash people began to secure sacred sites within the fires. A Chumash firefighter and cultural specialist spoke about his experience:

“I know that we’re not always going to save all the sites. There’s going to be times where we need to save people’s lives”…“Cultural sites are important to us. But my number one job that I’m hired to do is [be a] firefighter.”

His statement is telling. As the planet changes – as sacred sites and other important places disappear in fires & mudslides – how do we support the actions of indigenous people to save life?

To be continued…

David is a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. He is also associate professor of anthropology at Biola University (which is a few miles from Disneyland in Southern California). His Twitter handle is @DavidShaneLowry.

3 Replies to “AGU: Welcome to the “eugenicene””

  1. This is really good stuff–thank you for embarking on this series. Your definition of “eugenicene” reminds me of something Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote back in 2003 for Global Transformations. Long quote, but:

    At the 1995 closed-door meeting of the Gorbachev Foundation in San Francisco, members of what has become a global oligarchy calmly agreed that at some point in this twenty-first century only two-tenths of the world’s active population would be necessary to sustain the world economy. The middle classes as we know them are likely to disappear. Chunks of humanity will become irrelevant. John Gage and Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems suggest the motto of that future: “to have lunch or be lunch.” And how will the prosperous fifth appease those who may not want to be someone else’s lunch? Former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbignew Brzezinski, the very one who coined the word globalization, provides the most successful answer: tittytainment–titty as in tits and motherhood, that is, enough milk for the poor to survive poorly and plenty of entertainment to maintain their good spirits. (Trouillot 2003:56)

    I discussed this in a long and too-sprawling post called Public Anthropology & Bill Gates. Which may be worth dredging up as Bill Gates declares Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now” to be his favorite book of all time.

    1. Dear Jason,

      Thank you for taking time to think about this intellectual conundrum with me. What you bring up here (Troulillot’s recollection of “tittytainment” post cold-war) reminds me of some comments that I heard during my fieldwork several years ago from a person who was in the business of hooking of cable/satellite for homes in the U.S. Southeast. He said: “People need two things: food & tv. If they don’t have them, they will do anything to get them. If they have them, nothing else matters.” Their are also correlations in American Christian life where church pastors/evangelists will talk about going from the “milk” (and easy Christian life) to “meat” (a much more robust Christian life). Thought these definitely call for much nuanced conversations, they show additional evidence to what Trouillot was witnessing. Which leads to your last point…do we need a new critique of “enlightenment” rhetoric in the United States & globally?

  2. Hi David, thank you for getting back to me. It’s also striking that these comments about entertainment provision (both from Trouillot and your fieldwork) were made before the glowing phone took over as the ultimate, and ultimately addictive, personal entertainment device. With regard to your final question: do we need a new critique of “enlightenment” rhetoric? I guess I would say that I find it interesting that you are launching this guest series on the most widely read anthropology blog in the world, stressing abandonment, marginalization and “eugenicene.” Meanwhile, Pinker is revving up for his juggernaut “Enlightenment Now” book tour with full endorsement of Bill Gates. Maybe we don’t need a new critique, but we definitely need to get your anthropology out there.