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Race and Rubber in the Plantationocene: Liberia and the History of American Imperialism

Filmmaker and historian Gregg Mitman, a guest of the Research Initiative in Environments and Societies at Davis, was here on October 26-27 to screen his new film, an explosive reminder of how large-scale land grabs are transforming livelihoods across the planet.  The Land Beneath Our Feet is a remarkable documentary which weaves together rare archival footage from a 1926 Harvard expedition to Liberia with the journey of a young Liberian man, uprooted by war, seeking to understand how the past has shaped land conflicts in that country today.

In a colloquium on Friday, October 27, Mitman presented two short proposals also based on his research about American capitalism in Liberia: for a Mellon Sawyer seminar proposal titled “Interrogating the Plantationocene” and for his forthcoming book The World that Firestone Built: Capitalism, American Empire and the Forgotten Promise of Liberia.

The plantationocene is a concept proposed by some scholars as an alternative to the popular notion of the anthropocene, which refers to a new geologic epoch characterized by humans’ impact on the earth. In contrast to the anthropocene, which emphasizes the impacts of humans as a species, the term plantationocene pays attention to how differently situated people- for example, Harvey Firestone and a worker on one of his Liberian rubber plantations- inhabit this world very differently.

Attention is instead focused on plantations and their ecological relations to the rise and growth of global capitalism, asking us to reconsider our fundamental ideas about the relationship of human corporeality to nature, labor, capital and the state. Mitman will be leading a seminar series inviting thinkers throughout the coming year to build on and interrogate these concepts.

Participants in Friday’s colloquium discussed this concept as well as the structure of Mitman’s book, a sweeping story of ecology and disease, of commerce and science, of racial politics and political maneuvering. Turning a bright light on the intimate ties between American science, medicine and business, it is the story of how American capitalism and corporate empire- driven by the demand for resources and profits enshrouded a facade of benevolence- extracted enormous value for American interests from a struggling black republic in Africa while leaving the Liberian people to pay the price.

The event was hosted by Louis Warren, W. Turrentine Jackson Professor of Western History, and Associate Professor Corrie Decker and PhD student Sean Gallagher, also both from the History department, served as faculty and graduate student commentators.

In the lively discussion there was a great deal of appreciation for Mitman’s work to highlight race, which is often under-emphasized in work in the environmental humanities. Faculty and graduate students joining the discussion wondered: are there alternative modes of development with multinational corporations which could, hypothetically, have had better outcomes, or is the plantation system necessarily exploitative? What does sustainability mean? If labor is the resource primarily extracted, how are we to think about industries, like rubber growing, which may be environmentally sustainable but are predicated on profound social injustice?

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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