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River Life, Climate Change, Bangladesh

My second project took shape in the shadow of the UN sponsored conference on climate change in Durban, South Africa in 2011 in which Bangladesh played a significant role, or at least that was what was reported in the newspapers in Bangladesh. A general skepticism characterized Bangladesh's bid for such attention, which was seen by the educated elite back home as an effort to secure more development funding to line the coffers of politicians. From my field site of silt islands or chars in Northern Bangladesh, I explored how the discourse of climate change entered into and framed the perceptions of disaster among those who dwelt on the chars, and also how climate change, an abstract reality buttressed by a large scientific infrastructure, found footing within the textures and rhythms of river life.  My preoccupation with trying to understand how climate operates across more scales and has more scope than can be readily conceived and experienced by humans, even as they live with it, has spawned three manuscripts on this topic.

Based on my eight years of fieldwork with the United Nations-led Conference of Parties (COP), In Quest of a Shared Planet offers a first-person ethnographic perspective on climate change negotiations.  Focusing on the Paris Agreement, I introduce readers to the only existing global approach to the problem of climate change, one that took nearly thirty years to be collectively agreed upon.  I share my descriptions of COP21 to COP25 and growing understanding of the intricacies of the climate negotiation process, which led me to ask why countries of the Global South invested in this slow-moving process and to explore how they have maneuvered it. 


With a focus on the Bangladesh delegation at the COPs, I draw out what it means to be a small, poor, and dependent country within the negotiation process.  My interviews with negotiations within country delegations uncover their pathways to the negotiating tables.  I profile individuals who had committed themselves to the climate negotiation process, moving between the Secretariat, Parties, activists, and the wider UN system to bring their principles, strategies, emotions, and visions into view.  I explore how the newest pillar of climate action, loss and damage, emerged historically and how developed countries attempted to control it in the process.  I suggest that we understand the Global South’s pursuit of loss and damage not only as a politics of forcing the issue of a conjoined future upon the Global North, but as a gift to the youth of the world to secure that future. 

In River Life and the Upspring of Nature I examine the relationship between nature and culture through the study of the everyday existence of chauras, the people who live on the chars (sandbars) within the Jamuna River in Bangladesh. Nature is a primary force at play within this existence as chauras live itinerantly and in flux with the ever-changing river flows; where land is here today and gone tomorrow, the quality of life itself is intertwined with this mutability. Given this centrality of nature to chaura life, I contend that we must think of nature not simply as the physical landscape and the plants and animals that live within it but as that which exists within the social and at the level of cognition, the unconscious, intuition, memory, embodiment, and symbolization. By showing how the alluvial flood plains configure chaura life, I aim to show how nature can both give rise to and inhabit social, political, and spiritual forms of life.

      Householding on a Warming Earth

Climate change social science has evolved an extensive tool kit of concepts and indices by which to study the effects of climate change on human societies, such as those of adaptation, resilience, loss and damage, etc. But do we know in advance how the extremes of climate change are going to impact humans, as individuals, communities or in other relations and formations? How might climate change emerge through cracks within the self or within the sinews of the social?  How is it going to manifest in first an individual or two leaving a locale to full fledged displacement and resettlement of communities?  With a focus on households as a historical artifact, an economic unit, a space of consociation marked by disruptions and limits, I explore the lives of char dwellers in Northern Bangladesh as they come to terms with a warming earth.  This project is premised on returning a full ten plus years from the start of this project to see how climate change registers within the indices provided by climate science and within the registers of the unconscious, individual, and the social.  

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