Collaborative Ecologies: Anthropologies of (and for) Survival in the More-Than-Human City

Collaborative Ecologies: Anthropologies of (and for) Survival in the More-Than-Human City

A vacant house in Wilkinsburg, PA, is reclaimed by vines and artists. Photo by Noah Theriault, 2017.

Anthro{dendum} welcomes guest contributors Noah Theriault and Alex Nading. Noah is Assistant Professor of Anthropology in the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon University. Alex is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Cornell University.

In cities around the world, waste-management systems depend both on the labor of officially sanctioned garbage collectors and on that of “informal” garbage pickers who gather and sell recyclables.  In 2008, garbage pickers in and around the Nicaraguan capital of Managua began to organize.  Their livelihoods were being disrupted by underpaid garbage-truck drivers, who were intercepting recyclables before they could reach the city’s dumps, collectively called La Chureca.  The resulting churecazo, “fiasco in La Chureca,” shut down garbage collection in the city for weeks.  In the densely populated suburb of Ciudad Sandino, pickers used the churecazo as an opening to defend their livelihoods for the long haul. With support from the EU and a Nicaraguan labor advocacy network, pickers established the city’s first and only recycling cooperative.  Since then, that cooperative has coordinated labor, knowledge, and other resources, including those of two American anthropologists, in an effort to sustain its members’ livelihoods.

At first glance, Nicaraguan garbage pickers might seem to have little in common with food-justice activists in Washington DC, alternative-energy advocates in Hyderabad, or soldier-fly start-ups on the outskirts of Guangzhou.  We believe, however, that these disparate communities are connected by more than their location in or near cities.  They are also connected by their defense of everyday social reproduction in marginalized urban contexts and, importantly for us, by the involvement of ethnographic researchers in them.

Amid an escalating planetary breakdown, anthropologists are increasingly concerned with what Anna Tsing calls “collaborative survival,” the cooperative, life-sustaining work that sometimes emerges across social, cultural, and biological divides.  Now home to a majority of human earthlings, cities both exceed and engender human capacities for this work.  As a result, ethnographic research in urban environments increasingly requires immersion in the everyday challenges of making life liveable.  Many of us feel called not only to understand these challenges but also to participate in the work of addressing them.  Our new project, “Collaborative Ecologies,” aims to explore the potentials of engaged, “more-than-research” approaches to urban environmental anthropology.

With support from the Wenner Gren Foundation, we have assembled a group of ethnographers who are currently involved in collaborative research with environmental justice coalitions in cities around the world.  Following Giovanna Di Chiro’s writing on “living environmentalisms,” we define environmental justice as encompassing any activity or movement that “articulate[s] people’s concerns about their families’ and communities’ access to social reproduction – the maintenance and sustainability of everyday life and earthly survival made all the more difficult by global economic and environmental crises.”  Through remote collaboration and a workshop planned for 2021, we aim to generate discussion–and action–around questions that have only become more urgent amid the disruptions of a global pandemic and the rumblings of mass resistance.  How exactly do urban environmental justice coalitions form and take creative or experimental action in defense of social reproduction?  How does collaborative research with these coalitions inform theories of social change and urban design?  And what do such research collaborations reveal about the capacities and shortcomings of ethnographic and related methods?  Here, we elaborate on these questions, and we invite you to read, comment, and join us in laying the foundation for a more responsive, cohesive, and inclusive urban environmental anthropology.

Urban Futures

Today’s cities teem with multiple forms of life, intermingling with ever more complex infrastructural grids, transport systems, and media.  These assemblages engender diverse coalitions of workers, feminist organizations, and Indigenous and/or racialized peoples, who find common purpose in the defense of their lives and environments.  Cities have also become sites for an array of feminist, antiracist, decolonial, and postcapitalist approaches to collaborative ethnography.  Such work, however, mostly engages the human consequences of social and political inequality, often omitting the ecological dimensions of structural violence.

In recent months, the world has been shaken both by a global pandemic and by widespread anti-racist uprisings in response to the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many other Black persons, Indigenous persons, and persons of color.  Rarely have the intertwined social and environmental depredations of racial capitalism been so starkly in evidence.  Yet we have also seen grassroots coalitions in the US and around the world respond with initiatives of their own.  Whether by ramping up mutual aid in Minneapolis or envisioning a just recovery across national boundaries, communities have met the challenges of this moment with a range of capacities that enable them to survive, resist, and regenerate.

At this paradoxical conjuncture of “transversal violence” and creative resistance, urban ethnographers are uniquely positioned to help imagine urban futures beyond the model of the “European modernist city.”  The participants in Collaborative Ecologies take up this call in our work with a range of heterogeneous urban assemblages. These include migrants gardening amid the rubble of European nationalism (Stoetzer); slum residents deploying sewage as a barrier to state violence (Roberts); Black women asserting their right to an ascendant megacity (Sullivan); periurban farmers turning to soldier flies after a ban on pigs (Zhang); Indigenous women tending clandestine gardens on settler-claimed land in Taipei (Sugimoto); garbage pickers organizing to create a cooperative recycling system (Fisher and Nading); Black and Indigenous women planning infrastructure for postapocalyptic futures (Roberts-Gregory); fishery workers protecting shrimp from the downstream effects of disaster management (Kang); jeepney drivers resisting dispossession by authoritarian modernization (Theriault); students, organizers, and professors regenerating a green community economy in “‘Philadelphia’s harshest ghetto’” (Di Chiro); Black communities enacting food justice in a capital of white supremacy (Reese); displaced farmers making life in an urban ecology of war (Rubaii); Diné activists creating an anti-capitalist “politics of relational life” (Yazzie); and technicians working to develop accessible photovoltaic systems in Hyderabad (Cross).

At our 2021 workshop, we will share our experiences across these ongoing projects, learning from one another’s unevenly successful efforts to advance knowledge of urban life while contributing to the design of more liveable cities. As we debate anthropology’s role in what Arturo Escobar calls the “re-earthing” of cities, we want to know what it might mean to prioritize the generative capacities of our work as much (or even more) than its observational and critical capacities.

Ethnographic Futures

Beyond this common aim, we share the use of a vital but imperfect technology: ethnography.  Collaborative Ecologies aims to generate debate about how ethnographic methods might advance projects of collaborative survival over and against the structural violence that has made those projects necessary in the first place.  We hope to inspire a larger conversation on how ethnography, understood as a process of working-alongside, can serve as an essential tool not only for understanding how urban coalitions work but also for making them work. In particular, we want to learn from one another’s successes and failures, looking for patterns that can inform future practice.

Academic anthropologists have always had an ambivalent relationship with our role as participant observers. Too often, we relegate colleagues who promote public engagement and direct action to the institutional margins.  That these scholars are often racialized, queer, and/or women speaks to the larger structures that continue to constrain our discipline.  To address this constraint, Collaborative Ecologies centers the work of ethnographers who actively collaborate with nonacademic practitioners, from designers to ecologists to agronomists, on matters of pollution, mobility, food access, stormwater, wildlife management, sanitation, and ecological health.  Together we will cross-pollinate a range of complementary more-than-research projects while nurturing a larger conversation about how collaborative ethnographic work might help sustain translocal circuits of knowledge, labor, and resistance.  Many of our interlocutors in other scientific fields see little difference between these areas, and the non-academic experts with whom we work often see any attempt to maintain one as dubious.

Making collaboration a central part of anthropological methods is by no means a simple task.  The collaborations we wish to foster constitute both “engaged” (or “applied”) and theoretically innovative research.  Learning how to leverage the tools of the discipline to create space for “co-conceptualizing” problems along with other kinds of experts requires unsettling the foundational dyad of participant-observation itself, as well as the mythic figure of the solitary researcher. Our wager is that, while a commitment to collaboration as ethical obligation might make environmental justice coalitions more resilient, a sustained discussion of collaboration as method will almost certainly improve our ability to generate theory that is not only rigorous but also relevant to the pressing problems facing global cities.


Our complete bibliography is here.

One Reply to “Collaborative Ecologies: Anthropologies of (and for) Survival in the More-Than-Human City”

  1. It makes me sad that occupations like garbage pickers exist. It reminds me of the 19th century rat catchers – people who would hunt, often in the sewers, plague-spreading rats and were drastically underpaid (often paid proportionally to the number of rats they killed). They protected the population from deadly diseases and protected the food supply, yet were at the bottom of the social hierarchy.