Faculty Favorites: Must-Read Books in Environmental Science and Technology Studies

mosquito larvae floating underwater

Each semester we here at Edge Effects invite some of our favorite scholars from a range of fields to recommend environmental books and essays for neophytes and experts alike. This fall’s list features new and classic books in environmental STS, testifying to the enduring importance of research that investigates the complex intersections between science and technology and the environments around us and within us. We hope you enjoy the recommendations below and find new titles for your bookshelves.

For more reading suggestions, peruse our lists from Spring 2019, Fall 2018Spring 2018Fall 2017Spring 2017, and Fall 2016.

Elizabeth Barron, Associate Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh

Recommendation: Fields and Streams: Stream Restoration, Neoliberalism, and the Future of Environmental Science by Rebecca Lave (University of Georgia Press, 2012)

The premise of Fields and Streams is that scientists working with government agencies on stream restoration were displaced in the 1990s by a man named Dave Rosgen and his approach to stream restoration called Natural Channel Design (NCD). How and why this happened, and the consequences for federal resource management, are an interesting read in their own right. What makes this an especially good read for environmental STS folks are the underlying themes of the book (which are quite contemporary despite the 2012 publication date): the erosion of the use of science in management in favor of a comparatively cheap and easy approach, and the first introduction of the field of critical physical geography (a sub-field in geography introduced by Lave and consistently gaining steam across the discipline). Personally, I also like this text because it is accessible at the undergraduate level. Many of my students, whom have had the importance of the science-to-policy pipeline pounded into them for years, ended the book convinced that NCD was completely reasonable. That is the power of easy solutions (so prevalent in the USA), and challenging students to contextualize their environmentalism in relation to their identity as consumers of ease is one of the values of this book.

Anders Blok, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Copenhagen

Recommendation: In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism by Isabelle Stengers (Open Humanities Press, 2015)

black and white cover of In Catastrophic TimesPerhaps best known for her intellectual companionship with science studies eminence Bruno Latour, Isabelle Stengers’s philosophical work on sciences, politics, and ecological crises deserves close appreciation in its own right. This book’s ruminations on public intelligence in troubled times marked by a vengeful and ticklish Gaia completely defy all genre expectations: neither science studies or political philosophy, nor activist manifesto or existential calling, it is still all of that—and more. Stengers’s persistent will to rearrange our received tools for thinking is unmatched and contagious. How do you criticize the sad fate of Science in the knowledge economy, yet insist on the democratic potentials of the sciences? How do you resist the ideologies of complacent and technocratic climate optimism, yet insist on the many situated practices of renewed care and solidarity? How do you agree that capitalism is indeed the problem, yet insist that Marx and Marxism provide no answers? Few books, I think, will feed your appetite for action, intellectual and practical, quite like this one.

Seth Gustafson, Lecturer in Human Geography and Environment, Politics, and Society MSc Programme Convener, University College London

Recommendation: Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity by Timothy Mitchell (University of California Press, 2002)

cover of the rule of experts, a green-hued sphinxIt is probably fair to say that Tim Mitchell’s Rule of Experts is now a classic in environmental STS—and rightly so. Appealing to readers with any combination of interests in modernity, Egypt and the Middle East, and technology and rationality, the book is a series of interlinked essays about 20th century Egypt. The scope of the work is vast: mosquitoes, sugar cane, maps, taxation, debt, and more all play a role in Mitchell’s account of the administration of modern Egypt. Two highlights in particular are chapters entitled “Can the Mosquito Speak?” and “Principles True in Every Country,” both of which illuminate the ways in which techno-politics enrolls a wide range of subjects in projects of modernity and development. Rule of Experts is excellent material for students—I encountered it early in graduate school and I always look forward to recommending it.

Abby Kinchy, Associate Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Recommendation: Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight by Timothy Pachirat (Yale University Press, 2013)

cover of every twelve seconds, a white coat covered in bloodI always look forward to assigning Timothy Pachirat’s Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight when I teach “Food, Farms, and Famine.” The book’s detailed and often gruesome depictions of work inside a beef slaughterhouse are eye-opening for students and introduce topics such as immigration, labor rights, food safety regulation, and the ethics of killing animals. What I find even more valuable about this book is how it challenges assumptions about how transparency and surveillance work. In the concluding chapter, Pachirat questions whether increased visibility into slaughterhouses would change what happens there. This idea often fuels days of discussion among my students, who want to believe that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” but are learning that change requires more than just visibility. I love that when I assign this book early in the semester, students continue to refer to “the politics of sight” whenever they notice a relevant example in subsequent readings and discussions. I would highly recommend this book, not only for courses about the food system, but any course dealing with questions about oversight of powerful and secretive industries.

Max Liboiron, Assistant Professor of Geography and Associate Vice-President (Indigenous Research), Memorial University

Recommendation: The Economization of Life by Michelle Murphy (Duke University Press, 2017)

cover of the economization of life, photographs of a cracked jarA crucial skill for doing anti-racist and anti-colonial work of any kind is investigating and understanding how seemingly mundane things have obfuscated and naturalized their politics. In The Economization of Life, Michelle Murphy articulates how population counts and the very concept of population are tied to colonialism, racism, eugenics, and heteronormativity. I think one of the greatest values of this book is that it shows how some lives and ways of life are reproduced, supported, and flourish, while others are erased, oppressed, and annihilated without investment or intent in racism or colonialism through technologies like population counts and other demographic data, well-intentioned “Invest in a Girl” campaigns, and economic benefit. This text is about seemingly mundane but highly sophisticated infrastructures of privilege and injustice, aptly demonstrating what theories of power and social change need to consider if they are going to be useful in anti-racist and anti-colonial work.

Iris Montero, Visiting Assistant Professor of Hispanic Studies, Brown University

Recommendation: Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkweed Press, 2014).

In the anthropocentric worldview inherited from Aristotle, plants have the lowest rank in the hierarchy of nature, only above inanimate objects. In Native American foundational stories, in contrast, trees are often a primordial life force, and the absolute dependence we have as a species on the vegetable world is recognized and unquestioned. Can we reconcile such starkly different traditions? Is there a way to combine their tools to better know and heal the only home we have? Braiding Sweetgrass by Indigenous biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer brilliantly answers these questions in the affirmative. Starting with the illuminating creation story of Skywoman Falling, which underlines humanity’s interdependence and debt of gratitude towards the natural world, this book takes students on a journey where every plant has a lesson to teach and where the languages of science and wisdom are not entirely incompatible.

Featured image: Mosquito larvae, suggestive of Timothy Mitchell’s chapter “Can the Mosquito Speak?” in Rule of Experts. Image by James Gathany, 2006.