Fall 2020

Cracking Appalachia: A Political-Industrial Ecology Perspective

Jennifer Baka is an assistant professor of geography at Penn State who conducts interdisciplinary research on energy policy using research methods from political ecology, industrial ecology and resource geography.

A massive industrial re-development project is underway in the wet gas regions of the Marcellus and Utica shale basins of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. State governments have been coordinating and competing to establish a global petrochemicals industry using ethane by-products from hydraulically fractured shale gas. There are reportedly enough ethane reserves in the basins to support up to five ethane processing plants, known as crackers, each with a capacity to produce about a million tons of plastics components per year. Shell is building the first cracker plant outside of Pittsburgh after receiving a 25-year, $1.65 billion tax break from the PA government, the largest in state history. PTT Global and Braskem, two of the world’s largest petrochemical conglomerates are in the process of building crackers in OH and WV, respectively. Through the lens of political-industrial ecology, an emerging and interdisciplinary field of nature-society geography, this paper will examine the interwoven material and political practices and environmental implications of attracting global capital to Appalachia, a region long at the center of industrial development and environmental degradation within the US.

Managing Migrants: Class and Emigration from India

Rina Agarwala is an associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University who publishes and lectures on international development, labor, migration, gender, social movements, and Indian politics.  

How are sending country governments managing the out-migration or emigration of their citizens and how are migrants reacting to and reshaping sending state actions?  This project employs a comparative-historical examination to answer these questions using a class lens. Contemporary global migration is not only marked by its sheer size and racial diversity, it is unprecedented in its class variation. These class variations have catalyzed countless and well-publicized challenges for state leaders in receiving countries. In sending countries, however, the class politics of out-migration is virtually unknown.

To address these questions, this project compares the Indian state’s relations with its low-skilled emigrants to the Middle East and its high-skilled emigrants to the U.S. from the 1920s to the present. Contrary to assertions that sending states’ emigration policies are merely reacting to externally-imposed “neoliberal” development models of economic growth, I argue that global emigration has long served as a proactive vector through which sending states re-shape and cement new domestic-level economic ideologies. Sending state emigration policies, therefore, do not just reflect pre-determined development goals, they shape those development goals.

In India, emigration has been used to empower some classes, while disempowering others before and after the rise of neoliberalism, thereby exposing “class” as a much bigger factor than “neoliberalism” in explaining the variations in India’s migration policies (across peoples and across time). The terms of the class-based inequities underlying India’s development ideologies have changed over time, although the inequities themselves have remained consistent. These findings not only provide a more complete picture of global migration efforts, they also expose the conditions under which migrants’ resistance efforts succeed and fail. 

Bitter Ground: Smallholder Vulnerability and the Coffee Rust Epidemic in the Jamaican Blue Mountains

Kevon Rhiney is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at Rutgers University who adopts a mixed methods approach to examine the complex conditions under which rural agrarian landscapes change, and the socio-material implications these changes pose for smallholder livelihoods.

Since September 2012, the Jamaican coffee industry has been grappling with the coffee leaf rust (CLR) epidemic caused by the fungal pathogen Hemileia vastatrix. The first widespread outbreak affected more than one-third of coffee plants across the island, resulting in millions of dollars in lost revenues for the sector. The emergence and spread of the disease have been linked to a confluence of factors ranging from changing climatic conditions, impacts from extreme weather events, improper farm management practices and bounded knowledge systems, and institutional and market constraints that restrict measures aimed at controlling the disease. In this talk, Kevon uses the case of the CLR epidemic to illustrate the systemic, relational and multi-scalar ways socio-ecological shocks are often disproportionately experienced by smallholders, and how these shocks in turn map onto and are routinely mediated through everyday human-environment interactions. Drawing on a mixed methods research design involving household surveys, focus groups, archival research and interviews with a range of value chain actors, he shows how smallholder responses and exposure to CLR links into broader political-economic processes that are partly responsible for creating the structural conditions that influence smallholder vulnerability to socio-ecological shocks in the first place, and often set the conditions for future impacts and vulnerabilities.