Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

On the Political Nature of Cyanobacteria: Intra-Active Collective Politics in Loweswater, the English Lake District

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

On the Political Nature of Cyanobacteria: Intra-Active Collective Politics in Loweswater, the English Lake District

Article excerpt

Abstract. How can the politics of nature be envisioned for an age conscious of the complexity, contingency, and relationality of the world? What new practices are required to do justice to the recognition that the potential to act, shape, and change emerging worlds lies within complex epistemological and ontological relations? This paper describes an interdisciplinary study conducted between 2007 and 2010 in Loweswater, the English Lake District, that addressed these questions. Here, for three years, a 'new collective' as described by Latour emerged that carried out its own epistemological and ontological experiments: the Loweswater Care Project (LCP). The LCP was shaped by ideas about 'new collectives' and the commitment to understanding material 'intra-action' in situ. This inspired an appreciation of the radical relationality of people and things, and an approach to doing politics with things that we term 'intra-active collective politics'. In this paper we highlight the consequences of this approach for knowing, but also for action and 'management'. The research and the experimental forum of the LCP lie at a crossroads between the preoccupations of environmental management (particularly catchment management), the concerns of science and technology studies, and posthumanist thinking.

Keywords: collective, politics, cyanobacteria, phosphorus, environmental management, STS


This paper brings together STS, (1) posthumanist, and environmental management thinking about socioenvironmental problems to open up new avenues for addressing such problems in practice. Specifically, it shows how posthumanist and STS theories that take 'realness' as continually emerging within relations (Barad, 2007; Law, 2004; Verran, 2001) have been brought into direct affiliation with things, publics, and the management of human-nonhuman relations in the context of water catchment management in Loweswater. Loweswater is a hamlet of houses, a church, a hotel, and several farmsteads scattered around a small lake (also called Loweswater) in Cumbria, the English Lake District. Here, for three years (between 2007 and 2010) an interdisciplinary, participatory approach was developed that brought local residents, environmental agency representatives, farmers, local business owners, and natural and social scientists together with nonhuman actants in a 'new collective' (Latour, 2004) that grappled with deteriorating water quality. The collective was named the Loweswater Care Project (hereafter LCP) by its participants. The arguments advanced in this paper are based on both authors' experiences of participating in this collective.

The notions of 'new collective' and 'intra-active collective politics'--the latter proposed here as a definition of the approach adopted by this collective and explained in the next section--are intricately linked. New collectives, as Latour (2004) envisages them, embrace a metaphysics that erodes the dualism between society and nature, subject and object, human and nonhuman. They bring together (or collect) the multiplicity of associations between humans and nonhumans that are entangled in a specific issue and, in doing so, engage in politics proper, or what Latour defines as "the entire set of tasks that allows the progressive composition of a common world" (2004, page 53). The roles of human participants in such collectives, whether as "politicians, scientists, moralists or economists" (page 53), are understood as complementary and nonhierarchical, and it is through their reciprocal relationships and their relations with nonhumans that collectives can articulate and represent what is common to them. This paper analyses how this understanding of a new collective as an assemblage of humans and nonhumans shaped the LCP and its practices. First, though, we need to say a few words about the issue that brought the LCP together.

Cyanobacteria (or blue-green algae) have thrived in Loweswater in the last few decades, intermittently appearing as a 'bloom'--a slick, oil-like, green, and potentially poisonous scum that floats on the surface of the lake. …

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