The Association of American Geographers (AAG) has held its annual meeting since the organisation was founded in 1904, and is today one the biggest geographers’ conferences in the world. This year, the conference was held 21-25 April in Chicago, filling not one, but three hotels and conference centres with anthropologists, political scientists, economists, sociologists, and above all geographers from all over the globe. With north of 4,000 presentations, workshops, and posters, the program includes topics and research fields that cross a large number of disciplinary boundaries.
Any common theme you might find in a conference the size and nature of the AAG is reliant entirely on the visitor. In retrospect, the theme that stood out most clearly for me was the notion of nature’s value. At a panel session entitled ‘The value of capitalist natures I: foundation and debates’, inspired in part by the paper The value of nature to the state by Morgan Robertson and Joel Wainwright, Erik Swyngedouw, Richard Walker, James McCarthy, Morgan Robertson, and David Harvey discussed the intricate, contradictory, fundamental, and, in the end, undefinable value of nature within a capitalist system. At heart lay the relationship between the biophysical world and capitalism and the multitude of roles played by material nature in the processes of commodification and capital accumulation.
The notion of nature’s value resonated in the presentations by the LUCSUS representatives – Anne Jerneck, Lennart Olsson, Elina Andersson, and Wim Carton – who all gave papers on the various ways in which ‘nature’ is subsumed, used, and interpreted in a wide array of sustainability practices.
In their paper entitled ‘Critical realism against climate change, ill-health and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa’, Lennart Olsson and Anne Jerneck argued for an increased focus on the relational processes that shape and frame climate change experiences Drawing on the methodological approach of action research, they apply a critical realist framework to case-studies of communities in the Lake Victora Basin. The paper criticises approaches that fail to take into account the integrated knowledge that resides with the very members of the system in question, concluding that only through place-based, integrated, and multi-layered knowledge can we begin to understand the issues, strategies, and practices related to ill-health and climate change.
In addition to presenting at the conference, Lennart also gave a talk at the ‘Future of Food: Healthy Global Farming’ event that took place on 21 April at the DePaul Art Museum. Along with Wes Jackson from the Land Institute, he gave a presentation on Perennial Polycultures. These draws on the merits of the natural, perennial ecosystem of prairie plants which could be cultivated and harvested without having to resort to annual uprooting and re-planting. If you want to read more about perennial polycultures and their potential use in farming, have a look at the project on the Land Institute’s website.
On the Thursday, Elina Andersson presented her paper ‘Agroforesty as a sustainable and socially just carbon-offsetting alternative?’ in which she discusses the as of yet relatively unexplored impacts of agroforestry projects aimed at creating carbon sequestration. Based on a feminist political ecological approach, case studies on smallholder farmers in Bushenyi District in western Uganda show that structural barriers for participation and a gendered division of labour may lead to a reproduction, rather than a transformation, of existing social and economic inequalities. In addition, the inherently unstable global market framework within which these programs operate add to the financial exposure and risk of the participating farmers.
In a session exploring the subsumption of nature, chaired by Eric Clark, Wim Carton presented his paper ‘The subsumption of carbon to capital? Towards a multiplicity of subsumptions, natures and capitals’ which aims to broaden the concept of subsumption in order to go beyond its traditional capitalist context. The aim is for it to be seen as a general disciplining process rather than a as a means of maximizing production. Using results from a recent case study of agroforestry-based carbon offsetting projects in Western Uganda, Wim concludes that the subsumption of nature is undergoing fundamental changes, going from emphasising production to emphasising interacting and possibly conflicting logics, and that the subsumption of nature can never be understood unless we also, and simultaneously, understand the subsumption of labour.
Next year’s annual meeting will be held in San Francisco 29 March – 2 April, so keep an eye on the AAG website for the call for papers.
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