Published November 15, 2021
Episode 22 of The Baldy Center Podcast features Department of Sociology Assistant Professor Jordan Fox Besek. Besek discusses his new project with Brooklyn College professor Daniel Shtob, humanity’s relationship with nature, and climate change. He explores the ways in which humans effect the environment, sometimes producing poor outcomes despite green intentions, and the ripple effect those actions have.
Keywords: climate change, nature, humanity, ecological processes, environment, Asian carp
…climate change does not impact everybody equally. Just as it wasn’t caused by everybody at the same time, it’s not going to impact everybody at the same time... We should think about more specific environmental processes and then how those interactions filter through the social processes of class, race, gender, and so forth.”
—Jordan Fox Besek (2021 Podcast)
The Baldy Center for Law & Social Policy
Podcast Season 3, Episode 22
Podcast recording date: September 1, 2021
Host-producer: Edgar Girtain
Speaker: Jordan Fox Besek
Contact information: firstname.lastname@example.org
Podcast transcript begins.
Edgar: Hi and thank you for listening to the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy podcast produced by the University at Buffalo. I'm your host Edgar Girtain. Today you're going to hear a conversation that I recently had with Jordan Fox Besek about the unintended consequences of human interaction with the environment.
Jordan Fox Besek is assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University at Buffalo and works in the areas of environmental sociology, political ecology, historical sociology, and the philosophy and history of science. He is both a theorist and an empirical researcher who primarily uses qualitative methods. His current research examines a range of topics, including how globalized social processes link up environments across the world in ways that drive political, cultural, and legal problems, the continued relevance of W.E.B. Du Bois’s approach to interdisciplinarity and the application of this approach to contemporary environmental inequalities, and how social theory and practice can best incorporate both the power and limits of the natural sciences.
I’d like to forewarn you that, despite my best hopes entering into this conversation, Jordan's prognosis for humanity's future in the face of the unfolding climate catastrophe is not particularly uplifting. It seems that when it comes to improving the quality of the natural world, humanity's efforts are inept at best. As you will hear, it seems that not only do we lack the political will and necessary foresight to put effective measures into action, but the actions that we do take almost never have their intended effect, and in fact, often make the situation worse. That's a tough pill to swallow and personally I’m still trying to figure out what exactly to make of that. But if nothing else, I hope this conversation will make you think about it too. Without any further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I present you Jordan Fox Besek.
First of all, good morning, thank you for being here.
Jordan: Good morning to you, thank you so much.
Edgar: So, I guess to get things kicked off here, you had sent me a manuscript called Life Finds a Way. What do you mean to say with that title and were you inspired by Jurassic Park?
Jordan: So, that's a project with a good friend of mine at Brooklyn College, Dan Shtob, and so yeah, it's an explicit Jurassic Park reference. That is a movie that I watched, came out when I was nine or ten. But we've changed the title; it's no longer Life Finds a Way. For those who don't know, life finds a way is the famous line that Jeff Goldblum made in, like, this board meeting as they were talking about Jurassic Park. So, the titles changed to A Balance of Nature, which is kind of a question mark at the end, right?
So, that title refers to both the idea amongst a lot of people who are concerned about environmental processes that we're trying to find a balance, we're kind of questioning that, because we think it's very important to see natural processes, especially over long scales, in terms of change. So, it's not getting back to some kind of equilibrium, necessarily, it's more understanding what kinds of changes are appropriate and when they go so far that we get into trouble like we're seeing now. And then the second part of that title is, sort of the main theme of the book, and that is the balance of nature as in, like, a financial balance, right? Like balancing your checkbook. And we have reduced a lot of the ways in which we interact with non-human processes to financial and legal measures in a way that is likely inappropriate. So, it was inspired by Jurassic Park, but it's – I imagine in like, the prologue or intro we'll make that reference.
Edgar: So then, how would you characterize humanity's relationship with nature in general? Has it been consistent throughout history?
Jordan: Yeah, so, this is a really difficult question to sort of approach, and I would like to rework the question. Because what is humanity's relationship with nature in general, it presumes that both of those things are kind of relatively the same processes, and I firmly believe it's essential for us to not do that. It's inappropriate to look at humanity in general. When we start thinking of humanity in general, we erase what is very much the point of much of social science, and that is a focus on inequality, right? We do not have all the same responsibilities for environmental problems. Environmental problems have been generated by very specific social processes that are not shared by humanity in general, and nor will (unclear) be impacted in similar ways, right?
Edgar: So are you saying that the impacts that we have on nature are perpetuated by sub-classes or subgroups within society?
Jordan: Yeah. I mean, to me it's very clear that elite responsibility for environmental problems is really a basic fact, and when we don't incorporate that into where we start thinking about things in terms of, you know, we kind of flatten that inequality into, well it's all of our responsibilities. In some ways of course it is, we should all care about it, but our ability to foster change, our responsibility for what current relationships are, and so forth, you know, have to be incorporated into the way we think about humanity and nature if we're going to talk about it in broad strokes, right? So, yes it very much comes down to things like classic social science topics like class, race, gender, are essential to think through when we talk about our environmental relationships.
And then the flip side of that is that I’m also going to push back against the conceptualization of nature in general. It really is not just one nature out there. There are many natures, there are many environmental processes, there are many ecosystems, and they interact and are contingent with each other in ways that are just not the same. And so we start thinking about the environment, it becomes this you know big out there thing. We should think about more specific environmental processes and then how those interactions filter through the social processes – class, race, gender, and so forth.
Edgar: Do you think, is there a divide between humans and nature?
Jordan: It's pretty clear there is no divide, right? Whatever we do, we are interacting with nature, you know, and nature is very much here. It's built through the devices through which we are talking about with each other, right? Where these devices come from is very much an environmental interaction and it's important for us to think through those in terms of the metals that were mined to create this iMac that I’m talking to you on, and also those social processes. The depth of inequality there is often hidden from us in ways that we kind of are fooled by the price or by the what the technology can do. And same thing with the food, with our clothes, it all is an environmental interaction.
And so people who are in the conversations I’m a part of, they talk about a Cartesian divide between humanity and nature. I don't think that's very appropriate or accurate. There's a Descartes thought nevertheless has become this kind of thing where you can't have a Cartesian divide where humanity's over here and nature's over there, and there are separate processes that may interact but not. But still, when you really get into it, it's really a thorny question.
Edgar: Yeah, I would hope that we'll arrive at a point where we have the technology available to us and the sociological framework, you know, available that will be able to achieve a healthier relationship. Because, you know, as you've outlined in your work, the impacts that we have on nature are very real and vice versa, and the relationship is complicated, because in many ways it's difficult for us to predict nature and to predict the consequences of the actions that we have. And why is that? You know, if we can say with accuracy so many things using quantitative data and science and the physical sciences, why is it so difficult for us to predict nature?
Jordan: To me it’s very clear that we have the technology right now to live in a much more sustainable way. And really the questions are about social power and social relationships. In terms of prediction, you're asking why is it so difficult for us to predict nature or predict what's coming, which is kind of a theme in my work. We overestimate our ability to predict what's coming. So, think about astrophysics. We can predict with a very high degree of accuracy the movement of celestial bodies for, like, billions of years. We know that in four billion years the sun will expand into a red giant and envelope planet earth. Then take ecology, you know. Wherever you're sitting right now look out the window and you'll see an ecosystem that will be very difficult to predict because there's so much going on. There's different levels of complexity, right? So, it depends upon the questions we're asking.
We understand genetic interaction, the developmental system of genes, relatively well, but that won't tell you everything you need to know about the biology of a species or a being. Because that being is interacting with other things, that changes what they're going to look like, right?
Edgar: How does the complexity impact our ability, or inability, to reach agreements about how we can, as a species, mitigate future risks?
Jordan: Well, it's two different questions there, it's how does it and how should it. I think it should have a lot more to do with the, sort of, public works projects we have going on. You know, the whole debate over geoengineering. Shooting chemicals or whatever it is in the atmosphere to control the climate, you know, sounds like a pretty big risk to me, and every generation thinks they have the latest technology and it can do exactly as they please. But the humility that comes from, well we don't fully understand everything. If you talk to most scientists, whoever, whether they are astrophysics or ecologists or whatever, they understand this. These relationships are messy, muddled, complex, and that they can't say everything. But then does that filter into the actual decisions that are made? I'm not so sure. Which, you know, those decisions are often made with a lot of hubris in terms of how much we can do. The biodiversity report that just came out, we haven't met any of the goals that we set for ourselves 20 years ago, but I bet you that was a great pr exercise when they said they're going to make these goals. And so, there's many different factors here that are driving environmental management on these planetary scales and on these local scales.
Edgar: We'll come back to that a little bit later. I think one issue that exemplifies much of what you're saying is what you've wrote about the Asian carp invasion. First of all, what is the Asian carp invasion, for the uninitiated?
Jordan: Asian carp are, quote-unquote, invasive species that were brought over in the 60s and 70s through this very green Rachel Carson-inspired move, right? So, they are filter feeders and they eat a lot, and so, in order for in Arkansas and elsewhere in the southeast, fish farmers wanted to replace chemical controls with biological controls. So, instead of poisoning the pond and then starting over with what, you know, the commodity fish you wanted, you would put in Asian carp and they would eat everything and clean the pond for you. It would be much – you're not using artificial chemicals. And so, they were brought over in this green thinking.
Edgar: Sounds ideal.
Jordan: Yeah, it does sound ideal. Yet they escaped many times. It’s apocryphal what happened, but we do know that they found themselves in the Mississippi River watershed, and since then have been making their way up through the Mississippi River, and about maybe 20 years ago it became clear that they were possibly heading into Lake Michigan in the Great Lakes.
Edgar: Now wait, how are the Great Lakes – that's a completely different watershed, right?
Jordan: Yeah, so that gets into this. Well first of all it's a very valuable watershed. Valuable in many senses; economically, culturally, so forth. Seven billion dollars a year is what's thrown around, so it's – anyway, it's very valuable.
Edgar: It's an intangible value. I mean, you know, just the quantity of fresh water that's enclosed in the lakes.
Jordan: Yeah. It's this huge freshwater resource, right? And so, Asian carp might get in there through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, the Chicago River, and people in the Great Lakes did not want them there. Well, like I said, they're voracious eaters, and also, one species of silver carp, when they get scared, as a defense mechanism, they jump high out of the water.
I've been to the original redneck fishing tournament where the idea was you couldn't use a hook lure, you would catch jumping Asian carps in nets as they come by. They're like slimy and these huge things, they hit you. We caught 60 carp in an hour. It was just this crazy experience. And so, people in the Great Lakes saw this and were like, well we don't want this here, because a lot of commercial fishermen, fisher people and, uh, recreational fish people said that all they were catching the Asian carp, they were not catching the fish they used to catch to make money off. And also, they were scared to go out in the river. You know, who wants to take their grandkid out on a river where they might get slapped in the face by a jumping, slimy, mucus-covered, bloody carp? And so, it started this battle between the Great Lakes interests, who did not want them, and wanted to close the Chicago River, basically, put a hydrological barrier there, and people on the Mississippi River who were like, well we actually need that waterway open because that's where all of our grain comes through, all of our agricultural chemicals and fertilizer and so forth, comes through. So, it kind of, this environmental change set up this contradiction between these two really great interests, environmental interests, in united North America.
Edgar: It's interesting in this particular context that there's a century of humanity messing with the ecosystem here that's built into this story, because, originally the Chicago River drains into the Great Lakes, but, what I think it was 1900, there was an incredible feat of civil engineering was accomplished, right? I mean, what did they do?
Jordan: So, the politics that I just mentioned between the Midwest and the Great Lakes, these are not new. So, that paper you're referencing, this post quarterly paper, was showing how these politics did not just rise out of nowhere. It wasn't Asian carp, like, creating these politics, these politics had been existing, they were exacerbated, they were, kind of, the latest proxy in this battle over this waterway. So, what the Chicago River, as you said, it used to just filter back into Lake Michigan. There was a continental divide, right? This divide that no water should cross right just beyond Lake Michigan. The Chicago River kind of fed back into Lake Michigan. And when Chicago was founded, that created huge problems. Because Chicago stockyards are incredibly famous, you know, they butcher millions of animals, and then all that waste they would just put right back into the lake and it would just sit there. All the human waste as well. And so, it was a smelly, disease-ridden, you know, situation.
And then for about a century, all during Chicago’s founding, right, really all throughout the 1800s, people were trying to figure out how to alleviate the situation. So, they built a number of canals to try to do so. To try to filter this waste away. But then, it wasn't really until 1900 that they succeeded in fully reversing the Chicago River. And so, they crossed that continental divide. Water all flowed away from Chicago and alleviated, you know, just how stinky it was and how, you know, how much disease was there. And all that waste then flowed down to St Louis. I think St Louis was not happy about this. Actually, before the reversal was completed, they were sending a courier with an injunction to stop the completion of this canal. The nights, like, around 1900. So, somebody was literally on a train to Chicago to kind of arrive at a courthouse and stop this completion to, kind of, you know, legally delay it. Jason Randolph, the lead engineer, he caught wind of this, went to the canal, TNTed it, dynamited the whole thing under cover of night, and the canal was going, it was open, and there was nothing the injunction could do, right? So, it also shows that once you create a huge change, that injunction is all of a sudden irrelevant, because the materiality of the whole situation has changed.
Now, let's move forward to the 1970s. So, Asian carp are coming up. People don't really care about this as much in the 60s and 70s. They don't, they don’t kind of know what's happening, it's sort of a local issue. All that waste in Chicago is still, you know, up there in the Chicago River, and it's creating a chemical barrier. No complex organisms could live very long within this part of the river. And so, species were not transferring between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River via this vector, which is now the only main aquatic vector between these two watersheds. So, we had no species transfer. Then another green effort was passed, the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act was passed, a lot of Chicago river was cleaned up. So, all that effluent that was there creating this chemical barrier to species transfer was lifted. An unintended consequence of the Clean Water Act was that now the species could transfer between the two lakes, and so became an invasive species.
Now, of course, this is not to say the Clean Water Act was a bad thing, quite the opposite. However, it is to acknowledge the consequences of the most environmentally conscious, supposedly, actions, you know? Replacing chemical controls with biological controlled Asian carp. The Clean Water Act removing those chemicals from the water then creating a vector for invasive species. And so, it really was through two green moves that Asian carp became a problem.
Edgar: So, once they realized the problem, that the Asian carp had a way to get into the Great Lakes, what was done to mitigate it?
Jordan: So, there was an electrical barrier.
Edgar: Electrical barrier?
Jordan: Yeah. So, brown goby is a species that had transferred already, right? And so, you know like a dog fence? Sends electronic pulses?
Jordan: It was like that. And there's three of them set up around Romeo, Illinois that do this. And so, they stop any larger organisms. Again, like a dog fence, right? So, the organism will see this flash of light and this electronic kind of shock, and will go back. And so, that had worked pretty well, and then it was expected, well that will continue to work for Asian carp. However, people in the Great Lakes were like, that's not good enough, we want a hydrological barrier back. We want to un-reverse the river. And that set up this problem.
Edgar: Maybe you could tell us a little bit about the Notre Dame study.
Jordan: So, when this was ongoing, when this was, uh, became apparent that Asian carp were moving up towards Lake Michigan, there was also a new technology within a lot of, uh, ecological circles called eDNA, or Environmental DNA. And what this technology is, is you take a small water sample and you test it for small particulates of DNA, or whatever the term is – mucus, feces, urine, whatever – and if you get a positive hit you can be pretty sure that species was there somewhat recently. So, there was a team in Notre Dame that was developing this technology, and they tested north of this barrier to see if Asian carpet breached it, and they found Asian carp DNA. And this set off kind of a big media storm. You know, and of course the people who did the study were very much like, there are a lot of things that could have happened here, this is not a confirmation they were here, it's only that Asian carp DNA was found. It could have been on a passing vessel or could have been, like, a bird might have eaten Asian carp below the barrier and then, you know, droppings above, we don't know. But then, that became, sort of, a tipping point for the whole controversy, of what might happen.
And so, I interviewed over 30 ecologists and biologists about this problem, and they're sort of all over the map about what this really means. Yeah, we can't think of science as this, like, black and white, testing things absolutely. It's always developing, the world's always changing. Some thought that there's no way Asian carp would get in the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes are deep, cold; there's not a lot of life there. Compared to the (unclear) River – shallow, wide, warm – Asian carp like that. Others were saying, well, we didn't think brown goby would transfer the other way and they did. We didn't think zebra mussels would transfer and they did. We really can't be too sure. So, that kind of lack of agreement amongst ecologists, or even like, just how precise what they were saying was, was kind of lost. And the ecological disagreement, or the disagreement amongst ecologists, meant a field day for people who were interested in either closing down Chicago River – putting a hydrological barrier in – or wanting to keep it open, alright?
And so you had Great Lakes non-profits put up these huge reports and people very interested about, you know, how we can get all these feasibility studies for a hydrological barrier. And then in the Midwest you had a lot of people who work for the shipping industry, or chambers of commerce, or people who work for agricultural industries, who depend upon this thing being open, come up with campaigns. The most famous one was called Unlock Our Jobs, as in don't close the lock, or that barrier, keep it open, unlock our jobs. It has since died down.
What I find so fascinating about this is just, a species is not considered invasive unless it somehow harms social processes; economically, culturally. So, if you talk to an ecologist they will say, well, that's not exactly true, species can have effects, it can colonize other systems, there can be categories therefore it's invasive, but in general you don't seem to care about it, so it's kind of this proxy for how non-human processes, kind of, mess up human processes, right? And so, this was kind of a really interesting way to study that process.
Edgar: So, last month the intergovernmental panel on climate change released an alarming report, which among other things, unequivocally states the devastating impact humans are having on the planet through our CO2 emissions. The report also makes explicit predictions about various global warming outcomes, none of which are very inspiring for the future. How helpful are you about humanity's ability to overcome the climate catastrophe and what will it take for us to enact effective solutions?
Jordan: Wow, that's the big question. I'm hopeful that people will be resilient and, you know, I don't think life will be over as we know it or anything like that. Of course, it depends upon your class position. You and I will be affected much less than somebody who lives in the Sahel or somebody who lives in some place there or Bangladesh, because climate change does not impact everybody equally. Just as it wasn't caused by everybody at the same time, it's not going to impact everybody at the same time.
How hopeful am I? Not very hopeful. Of course, I want to say that it's looking like we'll get through this or we'll be able to address this, but I don't see any major signs that that's going to happen. The major efforts to stop this are not remotely serious enough to have much of an effect.
Edgar: Then what role does your field play towards that? Like, what is the maximum contribution you think that sociology can make?
Jordan: Many things. I mean, there's a number of studies that show what sources are generating climate disinformation or ignoring climate change officially, even though privately they don’t, like many oil companies have known about from climate change since the 80s or before and have intentionally suppressed that. So, there's that. There's people who study – how can I put it – like, the idea that we will somehow use technology to get out of this problem and how every time we do so, we end up making it worse, or at best ignoring it. For example, you often see studies cited that are like, well there's this much new solar energy being used, and there's this much more geothermal energy, and that is great. But it's not taking into account how, overall, the amount of energy being used is far greater than before. And those new technologies are not keeping pace with the growth of other technologies. It's making up for the overall growth of how much energy we use.
The climate change we're experiencing right now is due to effects from, like, the 80s, right? Because there's a massive feedback that takes 30 years to cycle down. So, the emissions that are coming right now, we're not going to see manifested in the climate for another 30 years or so. So, even if we stopped all production, all carbon and methane and so forth emissions right now, we would still see pretty significant climate change. There's no sign of us stopping. Sometimes the economy and then emissions decouple for a little bit, and then they come back, and they decouple again, but, you know, no sustained, uh, separation. Us having less and less of carbon impact. It's just not manifested at all right now. And what can we do about it? I don't know. That's always the question. And we've tried many times. But being concerned and social movements are really the only thing that drive change.
Edgar: Yeah and it's like, I try to be very conscious about my carbon footprint, but it's unavoidable even being, like, extremely conscious about it. Just the way that the carrots and sticks are in place, just going about my daily life, it's impossible to not emit a ton of carbon. You know, I'm a guy, I ride my bike everywhere, we try not to throw anything out in the house, but, man, hot water. Every time I take a hot shower, like, it's natural gas that's heating that. I mean, like, yeah, and it's not – like you say, it's not that the technology is not there, there’s solar water heaters, but, at least, where I live here in Chile, I mean, they're so expensive and difficult to put in that the barriers to implement the technology are so high. It's really hard to make my life in accordance with the ideals that I have about, you know, the world that I want to live in and minimizing my carbon footprint.
Jordan: Oh, yeah. So, your whole life has been built through these processes, right? And you kind of have no choice but to take part in them if you want to take part in modern society. We will always leave footsteps, you know? People talk about lessening carbon footprints, but you're always going to have a footprint in some way. Every species builds its own environment, right? Interacts and builds. And human beings, through specific processes, have reworked the material bases of the planet to a degree that few other species ever have. And so, we are always going to reconstruct nature. We are always going to produce nature. We are always going to do these kinds of things. So, the question isn't not leaving any carbon footprints, or not leaving any footprints, the question is, rather, what kind of footprint do you want to leave? And so, we want to leave footprints, to keep on with this metaphor, that are sustainable. That do not degrade or make our ecosystem depend upon less amenable to life, and just try and do that. It's possible, but, you know, don't beat yourself up for taking a hot shower. But then also remember, where is most of the environmental impacts coming from? Production processes. Producing things like gas, oil, steel, deforestation, so forth. And then also, like, uber elite lifestyles. Private jets, huge private golf courses are maintained with chemical fertilizers, and so forth, right? You can't see the road by yourself, but it's not an excuse to not do anything. Try to live a green lifestyle as much as one can, yet realize that you're not going to solve it by yourself. The only thing that will help it is to address these structural processes that are driving ecological degradation.
Edgar: You've been extremely generous with your time and thank you so much for coming on, and, you know, definitely come back.
Jordan: Great. Yeah, man. This was fun.
Edgar: That was professor Jordan Fox Besek. Jordan has several ongoing projects, including a political economic history of invasive species ecology, and, with Dan Shtob of Brooklyn College, an examination of how legal and financial actors often take advantage of ecological complexity to remake nature towards their own ends. His work has appeared in journals such as Environmental Sociology, Sociological Forum, The Sociological Quarterly, Environment and Planning D, Society and Space, Monthly Review, the Journal of Classical Sociology, Environmental Justice, and many more.
This has been The Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy podcast, produced by the University at Buffalo. Let us know what you thought about this conversation on our twitter, @BaldyCenter. You can also learn more about the Center on our website, buffalo.edu/baldycenter. The theme music for this season was composed by University at Buffalo Department of Music Ph.D. student, Matias Homar. My name is Edgar Girtain, and on behalf of the Baldy Center, we appreciate your listening to our program today. Thank you, and take care.
Jordan Fox Besek is assistant professor in the Department of Sociology. He is both a theorist and empirical researcher, who primarily uses qualitative methods. His current research examines a range of topics, including how globalized social processes link up environments across the world in ways that drive political, cultural, and legal problems; the continued relevance of W.E.B. Du Bois’ approach to interdisciplinarity and the application of this approach to contemporary environmental inequalities; and how sociological theory and practice can best incorporate both the power and limits of the natural sciences.
Edgar Girtain is host/producer of the 2021-22 Edition of The Baldy Center Podcast. He is a PhD student in the music department at SUNY Buffalo, where he studies with David Felder. Girtain is a director of the Casa de Las Artes at the University of Southern Chile (UACh), and president of the Southern Chilean Composers Forum (FoCo Sur).He is an eminent composer, pianist, and writer of his own biographies. Girtain's diverse areas of work are often collaborative, cross-disciplinary, and international in ambition if not in practice.