Publication Type: Book Chapter
Source: Workshop "How do you manage? Unravelling the situated practice of environmental management" (2012)
, environmental disasters
, nonhuman agency
, political ecologies
Unlike more stable objects of study, environmental disasters are events that provide an excellent opportunity to ``follow'' the dense network of practices, knowledge, actors and pro- cedures that participate in the re-stabilization and re-construction of a ``common world''. In this collective, and sometimes ready-made framework that tries to re-design and re-stabilize the ``living together'' we can't overlook nonhuman entities. They also perform an important role in the interplay of forces that characterizes these events. To explore what means to take these nonhuman worlds seriously, I will go back to the controversy opened up after on of the most serious ecological disasters in the recent history of Spain, the toxic spill occurred near Doana's National Park in 1998. Through a detailed analysis of the ensuing dispute, I will show how different nonhumans -heavy metals, rivers, dunes, birds and excavators-, played a key role in the production of environmental politics for the affected area. But particularly, I will focus on the shifting role of migratory birds that nested in the Park when the spill occurred. Firstly overlooked by ``official'' experts and administrations dealing with the aftermath of the disaster, they progressively became crucial to determine the nature and the extent of the disaster, what modes of existence it disrupted and how to manage the future of the affected area. Monitored through bird-ringing methods, they turned into environmentalist's leading banner, helping to connect what was internal and external to the Park, engaging humans and nonhumans in the same political space and re-scaling and projecting an initially local disaster into an increasingly global disaster ever more densely populated with actors and discussions. To this extent, their ``wild'' and ``uncontrollable'' flight became crucial to challenge the existing model of protec- tion of the Park. Far from a management based on its ``uniqueness'' and its ``administrative boundaries'', the entanglement between birds and environmentalists contributed to put forward a demand for a more ``integrated'', ``comprehensive'' and ``horizontal'' model of protection.
Details aside, this shifting conditions of birds, passing from being ``innocent victims of the accident'', simple ``animals to protect'', to being ``the catastrophe itself'', or even ``activists'' of a global movement demanding better protection for special places like Doana, will highlight three elements of interest for the analysis of environmental politics. Firstly, it will make clear that in this process, non-humans are protagonists of the first order. Secondly, it will show that nonhumans can be disputable, sociable and uncertain. During the interplay of forces that characterize a public dispute, they are redefined. So, to accurately analyze their role we need to follow this process and trace these changes. And thirdly, it will also indicate that these transformations are not random and that they impact on how certain roles, functions and agencies to humans and non-humans are distributed. So, to manage environments necessarily implies something more than including or acknowledging nonhuman worlds. It involves learning how different entanglements give rise to different political practices.