Toxic Indeterminacy and a New Year for Environments & Societies

For its first meeting of this academic year, the Environments & Societies Research Initiative had a full house, with every seat in the DHI conference room filled. After a successful speaker series last year and a brief hiatus for the fall quarter, the initiative’s programming resumed this past Wednesday with Suzana Sawyer’s talk “Crude Contamination: Law, Science, and Indeterminacy in Ecuador and Beyond.” Although the group’s Mellon funding ended in 2014, the impressive turnout for this first event shows how important the interdisciplinary dialogue around environmental issues is at Davis.

Suzana Sawyer is Associate Professor of Anthropology here at UC Davis, and the talk arose out her decades-long work with the lawsuit against Chevron in Ecuador and indigenous politics and activism there. She is author of Crude Chronicles: Indigenous Politics, Multinational Oil, and Neoliberalism in Ecuador and co-editor of The Politics of Resource Extraction: Indigenous Peoples, Corporations and the State.

As graduate student commentator and doctoral candidate in Anthropology Mariel Garcia Llorens said in response to Sawyer’s talk, “science starts with some beliefs.” In other words, Sawyer’s work belongs to the trend in anthropology and other disciplines that interrogates the traditional opposition between scientific knowledge and belief.

The case began in 1993, when indigenous Ecuadoreans sued the Chevron corporation because of the environmental toll that oil extraction took on their homes, lives, and bodies. In 2011, a court in Ecuador found the Chevron corporation liable and ordered the company to pay $8 billion in damages. Chevron appealed, but this time in the United States, where, in 2014, a court found that the 2011 decision was obtained through corruption.

The Lago Agrio case, as it is sometimes called after the name of that particular area of the Amazon rainforest, continues today, as Ecuadorean citizens have appealed the US court’s decision.

Sawyer’s work looks beyond the people and the drama of the case to some big questions: How do communities prosecute cases in which the damage is not visible or immediately apparent? What does the future of these “toxic torts” looks like? How can experts productively understand the differences between legal and scientific discourses? In Wednesday’s talk, Sawyer focused on how the differences between scientific and legal definitions of “toxic” played out in the case and what that debate means for environmental legal cases.

Sawyer hopes that her book could be used to further understand the complicated relationships that have produced the rulings thus far. Louis Warren, director of the Environments & Societies Research Initiative, agreed, saying that he could see the text being used in law schools across the country as environmental cases and “toxic torts” specifically become more common.

“Environments & Societies has been a rich forum for environmental scholars from across North America, and our weekly colloquium has served as launch pad for graduate students and faculty doing environmental scholarship.  We’ve got a full slate of presentations this term, on a wide variety of environmental questions, and we’re delighted to kick off with Suzana Sawyer’s provocative work,” Warren says. Speakers for the colloquium are scheduled for the remainder of the winter quarter and through the end of the academic year. The next speaker in the series is Nicole Seymour from California State University, Fullerton, whose February 4th talk is titled “Climate Change is a Drag and Camping Can Be Campy: Queer Environmental Performance and New Ecological Identities.” To see the rest of this quarter’s schedule, check out the Environments & Societies website.

– Katja Jylkka, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in English