Experimental Publics: Activist Culture and Political Intelligibility of Climate Change Action in the Hunter Valley, Southeast Australia

Article excerpt


The importance of the study of ontological alterity in anthropology is reflected in the discipline's studies of human--ecology relationships. Anthropologists have challenged dominant dualisms of Western thought, such as nature/culture, subject/object, mind/matter, through enquiry into the cosmologies, rites and other practices of non-Western others. The ethnographic study of Western environmental activism opens up the prospect of studying subjectivities formed in opposition to dominant Western thought realities, and yet encapsulated within Western societies and democratic polities. One of the directions in which it points the anthropologist, and which this paper will pursue, is towards the study of the political life worlds of activists, their self-identity as citizens and their embeddedness in the wider society.

Scholars of environmental activism have suggested that new modes of citizenship are a necessary part of any transition to more sustainable societies. Active environmental citizenship, it is argued, will be a force to counteract or at least adapt to the threats to all life forms and ecologies from a rapidly heating planet, as well as other forms of environmental damage from economic exploitation of natural resources, high population growth, and wasteful consumption. Dobson proposes that 'ecological citizenship' is a form of 'post-cosmopolitan' citizenship that differs from the major traditions of citizenship: liberal and civic republican (Dobson 2003, 2004). (1) The chief characteristics of ecological citizenship (2) are: a non-territorial political space; the inclusion of the private sphere in the domain of citizenship; and an orientation to 'justice' rather than citizens' rights or mutual obligation.

Luque (2005) has posed the problem of the stirrings of environmental citizenship beyond the spheres of organised environmentalism and public policy. In Luque's view, environmental citizenship may manifest as a practice of daily life as well as a formal position of knowledge and claimed rights. Luque explores the emergent nature of environmental politics in citizen's everyday lives with the aid of John Dewey's concept of 'the public' as citizens who organise themselves to address the adverse consequences of situations that they experience in common (Dewey 1991[1927]). Successful organisation leads to regulation of these situations by officers, who are charged to 'protect and secure' the interests of the public (Dewey 1991 [1927]: 77), i.e., they are a government. Identification of a public is for Dewey purely an empirical matter. The primary problem of the public, he argues, is 'to achieve such recognition of itself as will give it weight in the selection of official representatives and in the definition of their responsibilities and rights' (Dewey 1991[1927]: 77). Thus in a political democracy an emergent public struggling for recognition of its issues is something of an experiment--an experiment that does not always come off. Moreover, in industrial capitalism where government above all protects property interests, (3) the forces ranged against emergent publics are immense, such that these forces 'determine the most significant constituents of the public and the residence of power' (1991[1927]: 107), controlling legislation and administration, and leaving the public 'inchoate and unorganised' (1991[1927]: 109).

Dewey deplored the decline of democratic processes that he observed in the 1920s era of US corporate industrial power. He saw the evil twin of corporate capitalism as the rise of technocratic power in 'the machine age', incarnated most destructively in the Great War of 1914-1918. The 'eclipse of the public' stems from the conditions of corporate capitalism that scatter and fragment face-to-face communities: industrialisation, science without social values, labour mobility and the growth of mass communications and transport. …