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Title: Between the event and the ordinary : climate crises and the ecologies of everyday life in the California desert
Author: Vine, Michael David
ISNI:       0000 0004 7226 0119
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2017
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The notion of an environmental crisis or catastrophe conjures connotations of rupture, emergency, and impermanence: an intermediary moment of chaos in which the normal order of things collapses in on itself only to be brought back to life—or “recovered”—after the crisis is finished. It is by definition an event out of the ordinary, which in turn is idealised as the realm of routine, repetition, and the reproduction of the social order. But how might such crises permeate the body, home, and other ecologies of everyday life? And how might these ecologies be marshalled and transformed in a time of unfolding change? California is currently caught in a cascade of intersecting environmental crises, erupting most spectacularly with the state’s “historic” drought, which lasted from 2011 to 2017 and peaked in 2014/2015. Alongside the drought and its second order ramifications like wild fires and dust storms, the local manifestations of a changing climate are converging to generate among Californians a sense of near-constant crisis that is both powerful and widespread. Based on thirteen months' fieldwork from June 2014 to July 2015 in the arid lands of Central and Southern California, this thesis examines everyday lived experiences of space and time amidst this scene of instability and uncertainty. Each chapter tracks from a different vantage point the ways in which people are experimenting with the material, practical, and symbolic elements of “the ordinary” in response to the discontinuities introduced into daily life by forces beyond their control. It is my assertion that these ongoing and open-ended practices are poorly captured by the concept of “recovery”—a recurrent figure in the anthropology of disaster—which strongly suggests a telos of return to some or another pre-disaster way of life. The central argument of the thesis, then, is that these processes of experimentation must be understood in an analytical framework that embraces rather than disavows the mutual absorption of the ordinary and the event. As such, the thesis examines the improvisational as well as the habitual aspects of everyday life, whilst also directing attention to the generative as well as destructive dimensions of environmental crisis. Sure enough, environmental crises can incite shock and trauma in those that live through them. At their most extreme, they may also reduce life to a state of bare survival. Yet my interlocutors also took great pride in their collective capacities not only to “weather the storm” but also to invent new modes of self-sufficiency in response to their altered physical circumstances. In doing so, they all drew heavily upon images of California’s past in order to make sense of their present and chart paths for future action. As such, the thesis will contribute to anthropologies of disaster, the ordinary, and historical imagination and practice in the contemporary United States.
Supervisor: Candea, Matei Sponsor: Economic and Social Research Council
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Drought ; Climate Change ; Environmental Crisis ; Everyday Life ; The Ordinary ; California ; Anthropology ; Ethnography ; The California Desert