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Political Ecologies of the Precarious
Kath Weston University of Virginia

ABSTRACT Soon after debates about post-Fordism drew attention to the precariousness of employment under new labor regimes, a sense of precarity entered ecological discourse through depictions of climate change that made the hold of life on earth appear increasingly tenuous. Political ecologies of the precarious incorporate an affective stance that allows people to live with apparent contradictions, reassuring them that they can poison the world without limit even as they recognize that a limit must be out there somewhere and suturing them to ecological demise even as they work against it. Through a series of ethnographic “stopgaps” set in Chicago, New Delhi, and Venice, this essay examines the part played by Henry Ford’s iconic product, the automobile, in cultivating this affective stance by bringing “the masses” into an intimate, visceral engagement with the products of synthetic chemistry. The story of how the car became a leading protagonist in quest narratives of the path to sustainability suggests ways to reinvent such affective intimacies by organizing the world into something other than a collection of resources waiting to be managed. [Keywords: Political ecology, climate change, affect, body, technology, environment, senses]


n The Age of Stupid (2009), Fanny Armstrong’s speculative documentary of a future in which climate change has decimated the planet, the narrator, speaking from an underground vault, seems mystified by what

Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 85, No. 2, p. 429–456, ISSN 0003-5491. © 2012 by the Institute for Ethnographic Research (IFER) a part of the George Washington University. All rights reserved.


Political Ecologies of the Precarious

he perceives as a failure to act. Flanked by a global seed bank, carefully preserved stacks of computer archives, and an elephant taking its final swim in a bath of formaldehyde, he calls up digitized footage from 2008, when the magnitude of the threat posed by climate change had become clear and people still had a chance to do something about it. “What state of mind were we in,” the Last Man wonders, “to face extinction and simply shrug it off?” Like much contemporary environmental commentary, the film title imparts a cognitive spin to this refusal to act: it was a matter of stupidity, apparently, a lack of intellectual comprehension. Yet there is also something obdurately affective at play in the paradox articulated by the Last Man, and without a better sense of these affective attachments than political ecology has thus far been able to provide, there can be no meaningful answer to the Last Man’s question. What does it mean to know but not to grasp, to have realization end in a shrug? To have the arms, once they do reach out, reach for the very things that are killing you? It is an intimate stance that links two forms of unstable attenuated connection. First is the shrug, a collective gesture of resignation. Next, regardless, comes the sweet embrace of toxicity. Governments seize tribal lands for mining ventures. Cosmetics applied to protect skin from a damaged ozone layer turn out to be known carcinogens. New factories gift desire a carbon footprint. This attenuation marks a failure to make a connection that has already been made. It emerges from a historical moment in which the dire consequences are already foreshadowed, with innocence assigned to a rapidly receding golden era of industrial boosterism when factories still signaled job security and pollution had yet to be codified as a cause for activism. “You may not be interested in extinction,” writes Deborah Bird Rose (2011:51) from the interiority of that moment, “…but extinction is interested in you.” Political leaders announce steps to mitigate when leaps are called for. The bodies, flexible; the policies, flexible; the species, infinitely flexible, even unto death. What has fostered such an intimate engagement with ecological demise, at a time when the notion of climate change has raised the specter not of displacement from one earthly place to another but displacement from the planet itself?1 What has prevented that intimate engagement from yielding more salutary ecological effects? Rather than address such questions by relying on analytic categories such as “the corporation,” “the body,” or “the state,” as though such abstractions could ever

a car is not some free-floating symbol of freedom and the open road (in North America) or an export economy on its knees (in Japan) or class mobility and modernization (in South Asia). Vallas 1999). toxicity-infused relationship to what they have taken to calling “the environment. this essay seeks to move political ecology toward a more embodied and affectively oriented understanding by embedding analysis in a series of passages framed as ethnographic “stopgaps. considered here as an example of technologies (in the extended sense) that have schooled people into adopting an affectively sensual. these passages gesture toward the many stopgap measures advanced to address ecological degradation. Job tenure had become more uncertain. it should become clear that they also constitute a nod to the sporadic and perpetually disrupted character that precarity lends to environmental politics. New Delhi. contributed to a master narrative of globalization in which the relatively stable institutional arrangements associated with unionized factory work and welfare capitalism yielded to demands for flexibility in all aspects of production. Rather.KATH WESTON be grasped phenomenologically. including employment (Martin 1995. Taken together.” Most obviously. these ethnographic stopgaps—sited in Chicago. employment more intermittent. Henry Ford’s first love. In different ways on different continents. the ecological limit to capitalist expansion arrives like the calculus. a literature on post-Fordism emerged that focused on the precariousness of new labor regimes. in turn. the automobile. it is one of many technologies that are intimately and corporeally implicated in the creation of new ecologies. Middle-class confidence in the efficacy of planning began to suffer. even as we recognize that a limit must be out there somewhere. the automobile. Precarity Enters Ecological Discourse With the precipitous decline of manufacturing and the shift to service sector jobs in wealthy nations after the 1970s. In this dreamworld. but as the essay unfolds. with a boundary that logically and relentlessly approaches but cannot be breached through visceral experience.3 That literature. sustenance harder to secure. health rather difficult to maintain. and Venice—examine the impact of Fordism’s most iconic product. 431 .”2 In this sense. continues to organize the affective stance that reassures us we can poison the world without limit by extending contemporary relations of production into the future.

a seemingly unrelated discourse emerged that focused on precarity of another sort. but in the ever more precarious scenario that encourages them to hanker for the sanctuary of a bygone era of job security imagined to be simpler and safer. As a psychopolitical posture. nostalgia conjures a past. can still long for a future that will showcase the material affluence they associate with Europe or North America. but on a planetary scale. or. A sense of fragility entered the lexicon of environmental politics through studies of what was first called global warming. Families ended up living in the parks after labor laws were liberalized in Japan. but its temporality is not always straightforward. celebrated as good for “the economy. their North American and European counterparts live not in the televised present imagined abroad. not body-by-body (which has always been so). in each case. less teleologically. and attachment. that any division of labor history into Fordist/postFordist periods applies mainly to “the West” (Elam 1990).6 Nostalgia.5 One case may enlist future-directed nostalgia. then reformulated as climate change. Yet that dream has been so long in coming they may fear it is already lost. for a less precarious existence. This one highlighted the increasingly precarious hold on existence of life itself: life in the sense of biological life forms. Working people in emerging economies. power. including humans. who cannot look back to a Fordist past in the place where they live and labor. no longer seemed assured. some have argued that the changes described in this established narrative of post-Fordism have yet to arrive. but it is nostalgia all the same.Political Ecologies of the Precarious Unemployment hit record levels in many parts of the European Union. For emerging economies in which industrial production still constitutes a rising rather than a waning force. Cultural studies scholars such as Lauren Berlant (2007) and ethnographers such as Kathleen Stewart (2007) have emphasized the ways in which these changes effectively and affectively reorganized older forms of sociality. Increased productivity. New social categories such as “environmental refugee” emerged to mark the tenuous connection to place ushered in by ecological changes. It is this environmental counterpoint 432 . the continued survival of many species.4 Meanwhile.” translated into many people’s lives as higher workloads with no corresponding increase in pay. This sets the stage for a rather complicated version of post-Fordist nostalgia.7 When computer models imaged the consequences of rising temperatures. the other memory-driven nostalgia. While labor conditions were becoming more unstable in venues across the globe.

Maybe. niche marketing. (Imaginatively.) Responding to a pervasive sense of loss. Maybe mirrors launched into space can deflect the sunlight. From their inception. the invention of synthetic chemicals. which turns out to be a way forward. Maybe seeding the oceans with iron can mitigate the acidity that is killing the fish. “Eco” laundry detergents. they duly set about negotiating a series of international protocols on the reduction of greenhouse gases. “flexible mechanisms” for implementing low-cost. because the periodization that undergirds such nostalgia cannot easily accommodate. Finding a way “back. a caveat: The perception that environmental changes are rendering life more precarious is not to 433 . Under the auspices of the United Nations. demands a coordinated response. the deforestation that occurred in pre-industrial medieval Europe. whether or not governments faltered.8 Businesses in wealthier countries rolled out niche marketing schemes targeted at a newly minted tranche of green consumers who had decided to do what they could to address ecological degradation at the household level. Before moving on to consider the part that a mass-produced artifact like Henry Ford’s automobile has played in keeping people affectively mired in political ecologies of the precarious. say. nostalgia seeks a way back. Nostalgia in this context trades on images of an “unspoiled” planet. including but not limited to nostalgia. imaginatively located just before the onset of industrial production or. reusable shopping bags.” most governments agreed. flexibility strategies. to whit. since it is the linear march toward a future that climate change has subjected to doubt. and just-in-time inventories of solutions. Futurists and engineers. alternatively. lamps made of recycled chopsticks. retailed just-in-time inventories of as-yet-unrealized technologies as remedies for the havoc wrought by climbing carbon dioxide levels. for their part. Maybe a new liquid energy source will be discovered. Some provisions in these accords incorporated the classically post-Fordist language of flexibility.KATH WESTON to anxieties about making a living during the period of neoliberal or late capitalism that I am characterizing here as a discourse on political ecologies of the precarious. and edible landscapes supplemented high-ticket items such as solar hot water supplies. political ecologies of the precarious have displayed certain features customarily attributed to post-Fordist economies. much less the contemporary rebound of forest cover in eastern North America. market-driven emissions trading.

the salesman always uses the same opening line. Chicago How did it come to this? How did any number of people end up embodying a contradiction that encourages them to shrug off the life-threatening consequences of events they foresee as impending. although the two may feed off one another. Energy Star certified air conditioners. inhaling deeply. even as they make incremental changes to become more “environmentally conscious” and school themselves in new habits of worry? (Note that I am focusing on an affective tension here rather than working with the type of critique more commonly directed at climate change. They look satisfied. which interrogates a state of conviction called “denial” or theological matters of “belief. but these stories focus on the end game. (Think electric cars.”10) Since closely reasoned argument alone cannot dislodge affective paradoxes. nuclear winters. in the context of Christian heritage. indeed. the corners of their mouths turning up to echo the salesman’s. Watch the salesman in the burgundy sweater as he takes customers for a spin. circa 1969. letting it out slowly. Our first stop is a car dealership outside Chicago. Intoxicated with Ecological Ruin: An Ethnographic Stopgap. taking a long breath. Before a customer turns the engine over. Decades later. even giddy. although he makes it sound like a new sensation that has just washed over him. from the magnitude and impact of the disaster. often in the guise of working against it. may take on a variety of salvific forms. Nothing like it. laboratory tests would confirm that the much-vaunted new car smell consisted of an unpredictable mix of 434 . With their teleological bent. or any number of products that promise to “green your life. then descends.” he says.Political Ecologies of the Precarious be confused with an apocalyptic narrative. while precariousness solicits a reassurance that. don’t you agree?” Most prospects follow his lead. Meteor strikes. relaxed. “Ah. perhaps a bit of ethnography can be of assistance. apocalyptic accounts are affectively quite distinctive.9 Apocalypse derives pleasure from its own inevitability. “There’s nothing like the smell of a new car. political ecologies of the precarious seduce people into participating in their own demise. or is headed off by courageous action. the time when human history stops. especially in North America.”) Apocalypse looms. not the insecurities of a now. and climate change induced disasters all draw audiences to cinemas. In contrast.

Great. polymers. Ritter 2002). in their meaningful apprehension. In the process. the better… Back in the prosperous 1950s I never considered a relationship between smoke and environmental degradation. the odor of VOCs signified (and still signifies) luxury. I do not believe. It is a visceral as well as an emotional attachment. but because they knew they had to keep the compounds below a certain level in order to prevent the windows from fogging up (Fedoruk and Kerger 2003. they index newness. “As a boy I was always fascinated by smoke. feet kick tires. There is a corporeal intimacy to chemical synthesis and resource extraction. Across the United States. fashioned over the course of years of relating to mass-produced objects such as automobiles. When asked—as though they needed to be asked—they will affirm that the interior of a new car smells good to them. Sweaty fingers grip the steering wheel. that new car smell!” Despite widespread publicity about the dangers. Go to any new car dealership today and you will hear variations on the salesman’s pitch: “Ah. teaching people to relish what may harm them. the car exerts a pedagogical effect. they learned to luxuriate in the “mutant ecologies” described by Joseph Masco (2006) for the historical period following nuclear testing. they not only came to sense and feel and signify differently. not out of concern for the passengers’ welfare. And in the process. however toxic.KATH WESTON volatile organic compounds (VOCs). “The thicker and blacker the plume rising from a row of smokestacks. that most Americans 435 . when radioactivity (and synthetic chemistry) began to reshape the bodies of living creatures.” writes Carlos Schwantes. down to the cellular level. as well as the capacity to afford the latest products rolling off assembly lines. The factory smoke that “casts a pall” over a city in reviews that tourists post on the net can just as easily represent jobs to a worker or the “sweet smell of success” to a shareholder (who at any rate has the means to inhale from a distance). you will still find people in thrall to what they now know may come to ail them. and solvents used in the manufacturing process generated emissions that accumulated in passenger compartments to produce the readily identifiable scent. potentially carcinogenic and certainly not conducive to health. Better than good. Through small gestures—a breath!—en route to homes and schools and dealer showrooms. in fact. Yet there is nothing inherently noxious about fumes. Adhesives. Since the fumes diminish over time. they were materially altered. Automakers monitored VOC levels in vehicle interiors. and lungs suck in whatever gases are on offer.

money casts a sensory spell that works simultaneously as an illusion.12 Rarely perceived. Yet the pervasive enticement of that new car smell for retail customers. suggests that something more than profit was brought into play during the Fordist era. Friedrich Engels’ proto-ethnography. “from the depths of which bubbles of miasmatic gas constantly arise and give forth a stench unendurable even on the bridge forty or fifty feet above the surface of the stream…If any one wishes to see in how little space a human being can move. a form of damage. he famously contended that wages should be set at a level that would allow people to purchase the goods they manufactured. Nicholas Nickleby. and a seduction. how little of civilisation he may share and yet live. who stand only to lose money on the deal as the vehicle depreciates.”11 In an earlier novel. 53). The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. 436 . a dystopian vista of “machinery and tall chimneys. it still took time for industrial smoke to become “pollution. noted that due to the operation of factories. and the shift away from hailing workers as producers to hailing them as consumers. the growth of a middle class. slime pools are left standing” on the riverbank in Manchester. blackish-green. “a long string of the most disgusting. factory smoke in those days clearly symbolized power and prosperity” (2009:125). out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever.Political Ecologies of the Precarious did back then. In this formulation. it is only necessary to travel hither” (1892:48. Although the health effects of fumes. fumes also figured prominently in agitation for industrial reform in Europe and North America. but it was hardly consensual. Dickens had used the trope of fumes to explain how the effluvia of profit-driven societies could equally well exert an appeal: “For gold conjures up a mist about a man more destructive of all his old senses and lulling to his feelings than the fumes of charcoal” (1839:4). As I recall it. and never got uncoiled” (1854:32). much less acknowledged. were much debated throughout this period. in other words. An assembly line worker at the Rouge River plant. how little air—and such air!—he can breathe. particularly on factory workers. The view that Schwantes describes may have been dominant. should be able to drive home a Model A. This is a familiar chapter in the oft-narrated story of Fordism in North America: the implementation of a family wage. Although Henry Ford was a staunch opponent of labor organizing. Charles Dickens set his novel Hard Times in Coketown.

KATH WESTON are the ways in which. An enterprising attorney in Colorado has even staged a new car smell defense on behalf of a man charged with leaving the scene after he crashed into a bicyclist. but also a response to the incitement to accessorize that these vehicles tendered by virtue of their very incompleteness when they rolled off the assembly line. forcing drivers to double as mechanics. and harvesting machinery was both its scale and the intimacy with industrially produced compounds it would cultivate by integrating them into “domestic life. coolant. these workers-cum-consumers provided a vastly expanded pool of new recruits for the fold of North American tinkerers. ever more precarious. tire patching goo.” In the more immediate sense. they helped turn contact with industrial chemicals into a mass experience. stock their garages with toxic substances such as windshield wiper fluid. such as Ford himself. off-again love affair with the toxic industrial products that appear to be rendering life. qua life. if less mechanically inclined. whose “Yankee ingenuity” had long applied itself to the creative modification of existing technologies (see Hounshell 1985). and VOCs into the realm of everyday experience outside the factory. since fear can 437 . however. Lavishing care and affection on a vehicle was a matter of necessity. By the 1950s. What made this episode different from earlier experiments with plows. The same people who exulted in the scent of a new automobile might wear dioxin-laced oil streaks on their overalls as a badge of pride. the Ford Motor Company went beyond a reinvention of factory production to help reinvent the masses affectively. As the big automobile manufacturers moved leaky oil pans. ultimately causing his client to lose consciousness (Rudolf 2010).13 One suspects that they need not. as Muehlebach and Shoshan note in the introduction to this collection. whether fears incited by exposés and critiques buttressed by studies can reorganize social relations in a way that would meaningfully disrupt this on-again. In the long run. Discerning new car buyers today know all too well that they inhale with the windows closed at their peril. It remains to be seen. in garages that had become a requisite extension of mass-produced housing.” Early car models were so unreliable that spare parts and fluids had to be taken on the road. workers regularly ministered to family vehicles on the weekends. The VOCs in his client’s month-old Mercedes-Benz exerted an intoxicating effect. looms. by taking its signature product to the masses. or. autoworkers (like other workers) would shape-shift into buyers with moods assessed under the rubric of “consumer sentiment. the attorney argued.

such as thrill. “is the inaccessible refuge of mémoire involontaire…If the recognition of a scent can provide greater consolation than any other memory. who treats affect as structurally integral to modernity. but for a mere $11. a company called Lane’s Professional Car Products began to niche market an item called “New Car Scent. it hits another affective register entirely with the promise of a substitute that offers salvation. However post-Fordist Lane’s New Car Scent might be in terms of niche marketing. this is not a new development. on the surfaces with which passengers interact and—voila!—the driver of an old car can capture the aroma (never “fumes”) of a vehicle that just came from the dealer. With concept cars and expos devoted to showcasing the latest technology. “The scent. as debate about climate change quickened. political interventions have to counter nostalgia in order to carry the senses.” Car sales might have plummeted in 2008 as the Great Financial Crisis clicked into gear. Start-up companies began to experiment in earnest with alternative sources of propulsion. After the exposés on VOCs began to appear.50 anyone could afford the ambience of a freshly minted vehicle. but they do not do that. even as it preserves the form. alleged to be nontoxic. media coverage routinely linked cars with sustainability and sustainability with cars. Henry Ford’s Test Drive: The Once and Future Kingdom of the Car Even in North America.” Carefully reasoned critiques make many valuable contributions. where the steady decline of factory production had reduced the manufacturing sector to just 11 percent of the economy by the early 21st century.” observed Walter Benjamin. this may be because it deeply anesthetizes the sense of time” (2003:335). In a certain sense. And there is still the unresolved matter of nostalgia. Major automobile corporations dusted off 438 . In at least some parts of the world. the car has emerged as a leading protagonist in quest narratives of the path to an ecologically stable planet. Simply spray a bit of this bright pink liquid of unknown provenance. William Mazzarella (2008:298-299). contends that as a consequence “any social project that is not imposed through force alone must be affective in order to be effective. the big automakers have long billed their products as windows onto a future (see Nuttall 2011).Political Ecologies of the Precarious ally itself with other affective stances. The difference this time was that. rather than prompt a change of course.

rather. but they tend to ignore the life cycle (cradle-to-grave) impact of producing all those sensors and polycarbonate plastics. reengineering would be all that stands between an environmentally problematic today and a perpetually renewable tomorrow. many new automotive technologies do offer something better than their predecessors. Take. taking no notice of effects of scale. at least. the automobile refuses to be upstaged. In addition to a source of thrust considered less environmentally harmful than the internal combustion engine.KATH WESTON research on electric vehicles and moved them back into mass production. Crowds who got a chance to see the EN-VS in action at the expo were reportedly “enthralled.” “harmless” water emissions.” 50 years later.” Somehow. a review of Expo 2010 in Shanghai that was published in The Economist. which are often said to produce only “natural. for example. “The Bubble Car Is Back” (2010:86-87). To question the automobile’s centrality in narratives of sustainability is not to adopt an anti-technology stance. University researchers collaborated to develop a recyclable electrochemical fuel. the EN-VS features a two-wheel balancing system. The article characterized the new EN-VS (Electric Networked Vehicles) as successors to a 50-year-old design that was once commercially produced in Europe but popularized in North America primarily through drawings and futuristic cartoons such as “The Jetsons. how it is that a vehicle associated with the introduction of industrialized mass production and the paving-over of wildlife habitats has become fetishized in such a way that it promises to deliver the world from the very evils it appears to have wrought. intriguingly titled. and excellent maneuverability. A similar disconnect frequently occurs in discussions of hydrogen-powered cars. finally arrive at their future. even in a time of perceived ecological crisis. The Christian subtext here is not incidental. Sensors and a global positioning system equip the vehicle to drive itself and to communicate with other EN-VSs. From an ecological perspective. Water vapor is itself a potent greenhouse gas. thus automating the task of valet parking and allowing drivers to retrieve their cars with a phone call. small size. especially by coal-fired power plants. Americans. but to ask. Such celebratory accounts occasionally mention the environmental impact of electricity generation. in a way that sets up the possibility of nostalgia for a future past that was never lived but merely animated.14 If the breathless accounts of automotive innovation were to be believed. There is a palpable irony in looking for salvation to an automotive industry that has effectively 439 .

and it would certainly seem that two Fords standing side by side. But they are not. occur en masse. and in some cases thousands of Fords and they say that no two ever act precisely the same—that. It is an irony mediated by an affective bond to the automobile that remains visceral in its sensory attachments yet exceeds the configuration of desire through the sense of smell described above. the finest machinery. They will have different road habits. (1923:11) This passage speaks to a key question raised by critics of the Fordist/ post-Fordist dichotomy: How different is post-Fordist from Fordist production?15 If people can readily distinguish mass-produced vehicles when apprehending them through another register. No fitting of any kind is required. return to people as extensions of their own physicality. All parts are as nearly alike as chemical analysis. in Ford’s time or ours. however toxic. Once the car is understood as a pedagogical instrument and not just a carrier of passengers. revealed about the limits of standardization: We build our cars absolutely interchangeable. a routine part of his manufacturing operations. they could do so by driving it. if they should drive a new car for an hour or even less and then the car were mixed with a bunch of other new ones. the importance of sensation 440 . and the finest workmanship can make them. We have men who have driven hundreds. To ask why the car should have emerged as a leading protagonist in quest narratives of the route to a perpetually inhabitable planet is to ask about the relationship of sensation to prosthetic embodiment of the sort that the automobile teaches. through touch. there is a kind of customization in the absence of design that customers produce when they take a car out for a spin. Here it helps to turn to Henry Ford’s own account of what the test drive. The sameness that undergirds mass production may be partially an optical effect. Not all aspects of mass production. that is. also each driven for a single hour and under the same conditions. or aspirations. the kind of embodiment in which industrial products.Political Ecologies of the Precarious subordinated the welfare of living creatures to the course of its own expansion. cargo. that although they could not recognize the car they had been driving merely by looking at it. would be alike. looking exactly alike and made so exactly alike that any part could be taken out of one and put into the other. that is to say.

To gaze at the flyways (elevated roads) springing up across major cities in India is to witness a country’s advance. each becoming a vehicle for an expansion of the other’s capacities. sensations produced by each test drive hints at the way in which the automobile would become a sort of prosthesis. and (in this philosophical lineage) mind. acquires another aspect. The highly personalized sensations generated when a driver engages steering wheel or clutch have fostered an intimate attachment to the vehicles themselves. I’ve never felt so free. and even bicyclists. To dethrone the automobile from its position of Fordist and postFordist privilege is to give up the story. residents. and affect.” Or: “I hate this traffic.16 Sensation encompasses touch. Here. or so the story goes. Through sensory customization. assertions. working it up into a stance of attachment. instead of checking them into hospitals or spas after accidents. hearing. ignorance.17 441 . or aversion toward its objects. owners take them to body shops for needed repairs. along the lines laid out in some schools of Buddhist philosophy. long before Ford retailed accessories for its Model T and low riders in North America started to make symbolic statements by integrating hydraulics into their cars. cars even have bodies. driver and driven are inextricably transformed. an amplification of the human body that augments its sensory abilities in the process of generating the once novel sensations associated with traveling at speed. so as to personalize it. vision. as people create stories or even throwaway comments about what these feelings and sensations are supposed to mean. Affect describes the sort of dream palace created with injunctions. Close the windows. Those diesel fumes are really getting to me. feeling. but as affective attachments. But I shouldn’t complain. What starts with the sensation of air brushing along the contours of a body filters through feeling and becomes an affective confection that intones. it can be useful to distinguish between sensation. smell. they have also sutured people to larger narratives such as nationalism and the emergence of an economy that can transcend poverty. even unique. that seems as unthinkable as a world without cars.KATH WESTON in differentiating one vehicle from another. For many. “I love the feel of the wind in my hair when I roll down that convertible top. Feeling takes sensation as its materiel. In English.” Customization began as an embodied process. Henry Ford’s account of the variable. repeated by drivers. taste. and narrative. That’s the price the country has to pay for progress.

” the younger Ford insists. after the lengths to which colonial powers went to associate the majority of today’s emerging societies with “dirt. Of course. Bill Ford. Over the river Yamuna. preserve capital. Tolls for the privately operated bridge thin out the fierce Delhi traffic.000 additional vehicles daily. But the larger questions remain: How have such viscerally affective attachments to the automobile managed to reproduce themselves in market after market opened to capitalist production? Is the automobile-enhanced and automobile-extended body compatible with a planet that can nourish bodies of the non-mechanical sort? And even if the answer could be yes. and the search is on for a greener automobile. to talk about environmental “pollution” in a postcolonial context. political ecologies of the precarious inhabit postcolonial societies. or for that matter a greener way of producing the concrete that goes into all those flyways. where it empties out into the mixed residential/industrial community called Noida. why should the automobile now. have become the poster child for securing a future? NANO Technology: An Ethnographic Stopgap.”18 A hundred years and thousands of bars of Pears soap later. in some as-yet-to-be-engineered guise. the portrayal of one really existing fly in Nairobi can activate an arsenal of demeaning and racist imagery in a way that that same fly never would when spotted elsewhere. a bridge called the DND Flyway links the metropolis of New Delhi with the adjoining state of Uttar Pradesh. sets out to bring the Rouge River plant into the 21st century by installing the world’s largest living roof atop the 1917 complex. as they do the former metropoles. however distinctively configured in each case. “It is sound business” (Greenroofs 2010). heir to old Henry’s automotive empire. incidentally. Reports on the environmental safeguards implemented 442 .Political Ecologies of the Precarious So the clamor arises for salvation by substitution. New Delhi It’s a tricky thing. always. given its environmentally deleterious effects. There is a whiff of just-in-time inventory here: sustainable designs arrive just in time to stave off environmental disaster and. the green roof at Rouge River is a commendable initiative and not to be dismissed.19 Still. which makes driving on the DND as close as one can come to an experience of the “open road” in a city where residents register up to 1. No fundamental changes in the system required: “This is not environmental philanthropy.

you don’t need to see the Yamuna to know that the river flows beneath you. That’s when you spot the NANO. Rumor has it there are quite a few NANOs on the road down in Mumbai. It might be just another compact car. utilities. ignored in the race to get to the tollbooth. insurance companies ready to sell you a policy on your pollution-diminished life. By the time the river’s glacier-fed waters pass through Delhi. not through.KATH WESTON during construction of this serpentine roadway litter the DND website. Tata Motors has portrayed its NANO as “The People’s Car. factories. for the customer as for the nation. but in Delhi in 2010 they are still a novelty. fields—but it’s the kind of community that India’s new concrete thoroughfares pass over.20 Like all roads. “green” housing developments that chew up the desert. the DND extends an invitation to be used. tanneries. At those times. rickshaws. The NANO’s electric yellow bodywork illuminates the night as it toddles along on miniature wheels. If it’s foggy on the bridge. as well as enough fertilizer runoff and excrement to reduce dissolved oxygen levels to the lowest of all the rivers in the country. it might have included these: the manufacturers of air conditioners to combat rising temperatures. there is a surreal quality to the pitches for electronic gadgets that even the middle-class consumers who can afford them won’t be able to plug in when they finally reach the darkened landscape of their rainwater-harvesting homes. even when the power fails. Yet you might still be moved to take a deep breath. which sends a somewhat different environmental signal. except for the press coverage the vehicle has received for its record low cost. If the Inferno had had corporate sponsors. whether you are about to reach the point where your mobile phone signal will be lost. In this case.” another in a worthy line of automobiles designed to bring previously unaffordable 443 . as it frequently does. but the overall impression is of something gleaming and spanking new: a mode of transport that can secure a better tomorrow. There’s a whole world down there on the floodplain—cows. At night the flyway glimmers through the winter smog-fog like a neon page out of Dante’s Inferno. especially on the Noida side. Billboards line the sides of the roadway. they have accepted direct discharges from paper mills. and sugar refineries. when they do not displace them altogether. but to gauge your position on the flyway.21 The hoardings are almost always lit. Economizing moves are evident in the single wiper blade. village. and more specifically. a middle class you breathes not to savor the chemical mixture like some new car aroma.

just a key to a car. Not. takes over. the project elicited skepticism. Back in Delhi. if only to honor the Hindu goddess for whom it is named. The hug she gives the Nano is not an appeal to the tactility integral to a test drive. Vats and Toms 2011).” the key to happiness. where Tata first proposed to manufacture the vehicle. Tata relocated production to Gujarat. there was not a road in sight.Political Ecologies of the Precarious technologies to the masses. West Bengal. From the beginning. especially for those for whom a better life remained aspirational while riches accrued to Indian elites. Would such an inexpensive car stand up to the punishment of India’s climate and unevenly maintained roads? Wouldn’t it have made better sense to leapfrog an old technology like the combustion engine in order to produce a more sustainable electric or CNG-powered vehicle? Villagers in Singur. braided hair neatly tied off with a ribbon. or the things that make for happiness. in a reminder that not all the environmental impacts of an automobile issue from the tailpipe (Majumder 2010). Sales plummeted (HT Correspondent 2011. there have been periodic calls to clean up the river. In the still shot used at one point on the Nano website. however. happiness. Ratan Tata. but controversy still dogged the project even after cars began to roll off the assembly line. Her cheek rests gently on the hood as her eyes close and a smile spreads across her face. the company offered the owners compensation and upgraded “safety equipment” but refused to apologize. but an attempt to elicit identification with a figure too young to drive the vehicle. with animated specks of birds flying across the screen into the pristine hills beyond. a group of farmers from Allahabad demanded that the Supreme Court investigate 444 . In 2010. Like the original Volkswagen—the people’s mobile—the NANO targets an emerging middle class. Economic Times 2010. sticking with the slogan “Khushiyon ki chaabi. waged a successful two-year battle to retain their lands. When several NANOs spontaneously caught fire. the retiring chairman of Tata Sons. individually tailored. just a field of lush green grass in which the car was parked. Tata accordingly intensified its advertising campaign for the NANO. Leaving aside safety issues. Benefits for the masses recede as an ambiance of khushi. One of the images from the initial campaign enlisted the sense of touch in an effort to attract buyers. the NANO was supposed to symbolize progress. In the ad a young girl in school uniform. Like the DND Flyway. leans across the vehicle. cited the Nano’s reputation as a “poor man’s car” as a “stigma” the company had to work to undo (HT Correspondent 2012). then.

There have also been calls to clean up India’s air by minimizing reliance on cars. they took to the road. Like so many other cities in the world. staging a yatra (pilgrimage/ procession) with an ecological dimension (Daily India 2011). New Delhi has yet to develop a viscerally compelling narrative for public transport. despite more than four billion rupees spent to treat the Yamuna’s waters. The marchers journeyed to the capital the old-fashioned way.” the CSE (2009) declared.KATH WESTON why. there are no corporate sponsors for billboards on the DND that would feature children wrapping their arms around a city bus. Even the small cars sold in Delhi needed 23 square meters to be “comfortably parked. however. on foot. To raise awareness. the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) argued that the problem was not the NANO. The Indian government continues to subsidize automakers. levels of pollution have been rising. For decades modernity rallied people to advance. then what good does development do?” (Financial Times 2011:2). Rhetorical moves to set modernity on its head in order to break affective attachments to the automobile can only go so far.” in a city where entire families living in poverty had to crowd into a space of 18-25 square meters (Down to Earth 2011:72). Not in motorized vehicles. but automobiles as such. inverting the evolutionary narrative of national progress to mark the car as the relic of a bygone era. especially in a country where people have associated a progression from bullock cart to two-wheeler (motorcycle) to automobile with progress itself. When drivers complained that a cheap alternative like the NANO would only make traffic jams worse by increasing the number of cars on the road. precarity shrugs and says. Automobiles are “dinosaurs” that cannot be part of “the solution to the pollution and climate mayhem. and drying up. After Infinity: Crashing the Resource Limit In 2011. “We cannot go back. Meanwhile. If our homeland is destroyed and we lose our health. however. Ecological and environmental decay has become a bottleneck and a serious obstacle to our economic and social development. The lyrics to the anthem of development are changing.” But what does it mean to face “forward” with the precariousness of our ecological situation in view? 445 . Zhou Shengxian made a remarkable statement for an environment minister from a country where economic development has dominated planning: “Natural resources are shrinking. degenerating.

where an animal might be conceived as a relative. sustainably. amputation seems inconceivable. Infinite growth. Political ecologies of the precarious raise the possibility. when it recommends a future path that requires giving up the car—works from the presumption that a certain kind of amputation has not already occurred. There is a clue here as to why the sense of a precarious hold of life on earth that arose with the debate on global warming has led to a project of reinscribing the present on some future. perhaps. the sensory fabric of capitalism’s affective relations has nurtured a reliance on infinity. but cross it they will. not to mention the time that could have been spent with loved ones who became part of the statistical rise in deaths on bad air quality days. consider the affective stance available to people in some indigenous societies. This way of formulating the situation—the CSE’s way. Creatures. when the extent of the injury and the threat to life is unclear. no critical perspective on the industrial strategy of profit-driven reinvention. that there may be something after infinity. Infinite resources. or indeed any deep appreciation of the limits that business as usual has soldered into place. continue to deteriorate. The same vehicle that hurtles people at unprecedented speeds through space has “amputated” wildlife corridors and landscapes made for walking. time. The econometric propensity to turn the world into a collection of dead but measurable and manipulable “resources” is itself symptomatic. During 446 . Amputative logics leave the terms of engagement in place. The limit of business as usual turns out not to lie in the realm of the calculus. The salvific substitution promised by new automotive technologies and green consumerism may slow the destruction but can only defer it. By way of contrast. with some urgency. not to be eaten except in the right season or by request. resources—all these have their limit. ecologies. some boundary condition constantly approached but never reached. Infinite progress. while environmental conditions. by most measures. Things may run out—if not petrol or pufferfish. In different sociocultural contexts with different histories. because it entails no fundamental reorganization of business as usual. then perhaps that most ingenious of human inventions. Marshall McLuhan (1994) once applied the trope of amputation to the automobile to argue that technologies serve not only as prosthetic devices that extend the senses. people may come at the boundary from different directions.22 Over the course of several centuries. but also as media that can pull bodies back from sensory engagement.Political Ecologies of the Precarious In the early stages.

but departs from managerial practices in that 447 . Aboriginal Australians. some variation on that new car smell. and a kind of “ecological time” that correlates a constellation of stars with emu egg laying and associates the flowering of a particular plant with the arrival of snapper in a harbor (Prober et al.” as theorized by Jane Bennett (2010). 2011). In recent times. desire. only testifies to an engagement with the practice of natural resource management. a gift from the Holy People. with weeds proliferating where sheep had once kept them in check (Weisiger 2009). and remade. the point is that many “traditionalist” epistemologies are not mediated by precariousness.” the back story to a meal becomes less an act of steely-eyed assessment followed by a taking. than a matter of honoring or asking permission. 2011). have been working with state agencies to share knowledge about seasonal land use. Under present circumstances. weather conditions. set over and sometimes against them as “NRM” (Prober et al. The relations described in the Diné and Aboriginal examples are more akin to the relations set up by “vibrant matter. where every instance of “toxic suffering” references an instance of chemical intoxication. Even by the government’s own assessment standards. entered the hogan to receive their blessing alongside the human inhabitants. The tenacity of these epistemologies depends upon rather different sensory mediations than the ones produced by industrialized forms of possessive individualism. the policy was disastrous. While this gesture toward indigeneity might seem romanticized in an era when even tribal governments conclude shady deals with corporations.KATH WESTON Blessing Way ceremonies performed to reanimate kin ties in Dinétah (the Navajo homeland). permission would not always be forthcoming. or intention than by what Bennett calls “thing power. sheep.23 The classic Huron conception of a world in which things are renewed. destroyed. Many Diné recall the slaughter of their sheep by the US Government during the 1930s not as the rational step toward rangeland conservation heralded by the government but as a traumatic event that resonated with their forced removal and Long Walk toward incarceration at Fort Sumner in the 1860s. a variety of joint ventures have raised the issue of the degree to which indigenous perspectives are compatible with resource-driven management. bears some affinity with the concept of recycling in its cyclicality. for instance. Their recent codification as “traditional ecological knowledge.” complete with acronym (TEK). In a world animated less by human affect. perhaps. for instance.

One was a schoolteacher from Australia. Conditions matter. if not to geoengineering. Acqua Alta. the better to recycle them (see Carpenter 2004). The farmers in Allahabad understood this. It was a “hail fellow travelers well met” scenario. Venice Years ago in the breakfast room of a hotel near the Gran Teatro La Fenice in Venice.24 The “tangle of potential connections” that Kathleen Stewart (2007:4) finds in “ordinary affects” can route themselves equally well through a biomimetic industrial process such as C2C or a “traditional” approach to harvesting non-industrially sourced materials. on some level. Flash back. then. but certainly not the scenario one would expect to pop up in an essay in which the automobile is the protagonist. There is simply too much sensory pull toward toxicity. we would set out together to search for the building where Malya once lived during the war years. if not to a greener automobile. is a city without cars. they could have staged a strictly educational campaign instead of embarking on a 600 kilometer trek to appeal to the highest court in the land. In a few short hours. of course. because an idealist project that sets out merely to reconceive the world cannot dispel post-Fordist anxieties about looming environmental threats. to the moment when the schoolteacher struggled to liberate a particularly delectable piece of pistachio biscotti from its 448 . might also serve to recontour some of the alienated intimacies that chemical synthesis has fostered. Rising: An Ethnographic Stopgap. If “denial” was the only hegemony that needed to be displaced. after all. Venice. and too many institutionalized mechanisms in place to reproduce that pull. there to enjoy the fruits of her savings on a long-awaited holiday. The other turned out to be Amalya Woolf.Political Ecologies of the Precarious it does not set people apart from a world of inert material resources. which seeks to fashion products that are recyclable in all their parts. about wartime Italy. when they decided to march. Malya spent the morning telling stories about the dancer Isadora Duncan’s time on the Lido. but they offer a sense of where else a Chicagoan or a Delhiite who cares for a future might look. Indigenous approaches are not the only alternatives. I woke up to share cappuccino with a couple of imperfect strangers. to be sure. if conditions are right. Cradle-to-cradle (C2C) or regenerative design. an actress who had married into the Bloomsbury crowd. about the art exhibits currently on.

A dramatic intervention called the MOSE (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico) project has been staged to construct gates that will protect the Venetian Lagoon from rising waters in the Adriatic Sea. to the petroleum-derived goods that beckon from the windows of shop after shop. and resilient in a way that both Henry Ford and his post-Fordist successors could admire. Too many of their efforts preserve the 449 . To combat acqua alta. In a place like Venice. While there are other contributing factors that have caused subsidence. Acqua alta floods have increased in frequency. flexible.” Even in a city without cars. relies upon the kind of heavy resource extraction that helped get the world into this predicament in the first place. including elevated walkways that allow people to pass as the waters rise. are linked to global commerce. pulling every which-way in an attempt to get the transparent cover to release its prize. “Can someone help me?” she asked. “When I imagine what hell might be like. such as methane mining near the lagoon and the dredging of canals to accommodate larger ships. from the petrol required for coffee beans to reach the city’s cafes. too. as well as a tactile reminder. hopes rest on supplements and substitutions. inundates entire sections of the city. or peak tide. these. rather than a concerted attempt to reorganize a mode of production. the precariousness of its position evident each time the acqua alta. These days Venice is famously engaged in a battle with climate change. they have embraced the destruction in order to defer it. stopgap measures have been implemented. the oil economy permeates everyday life. most residents have a cognitive understanding of the dangers that climate change poses. but the MOSE project. A place filled with lovely things wrapped in little plastic packages.” she observed. After Malya obliged with a knife. It would seem at a glance that people are facing the problems head-on. “I imagine it just like this. where people have to spend their days trying to get the plastic off. too.KATH WESTON wrapping. in the form of the recurrent acqua alta. Polyester ribbons dangling from carnival masks. of one of climate change’s key effects. In other words. the schoolteacher savored a bite. Nylon woven into luxury fabrics. to the fuel required to transport all those tourists on which the city now depends. But like the builders of a better vehicle. They have taken measures to counter the effects of environmental degradation. But here. plastic. in tandem with the documented rise in sea levels attributed to the heating of the earth’s atmosphere. like automobile manufacturing. Their efforts are creative.

cognition and feeling aside. and the like—discourage people from mobilizing politically in part because those feelings develop non-cathartically. 450 . Yet. 3For an overview of the extensive literature on post-Fordism.Political Ecologies of the Precarious form of whatever is already in place. paranoia. when it comes to climate change. Thanks also to Kavita Philip for reading an early draft and to two anonymous reviewers whose detailed comments have also been taken to heart and so. see Amin (1994). when suddenly Acknowledgments: I am grateful to Geeta Patel. the capital-intensive regimes of production designed to elicit them. alongside later reflections on the significance of this trend. I hope. people find themselves preoccupied. for conversations and sources that haveworked their way into this essay. unless we mobilize for a different sort of change. they are finding it difficult to reorganize their affective attachments. someday we—and I mean we—are likely to be all wrapped up in our projects and our plans for sustainability. The feelings Ngai explores—irritation. the hold of their species on life newly perceived as tenuous. And for that very reason. of which. This affective dimension distinguishes the embrace of toxicity from the “ugly feelings” that Ngai (2007) associates with late modernity. and with them. the buildings are the least of it. whereas the visceral embrace of toxicity has developed historically in and through its objects. Analysis is never supposed to culminate in some intermezzo. my once and future inspiration. They may even occasionally feel their impending displacement. Continuous sensory engagement with industrially sourced experiences of consumption discourages any meaningful reorganization of a system that represents immense short-term profitability for some. interruption rather than crescendo may turn out to be the new motif. they may occasionally feel the gravity of their position. Endnotes: 1See Masco’s (2010) important argument that climate change has supplemented nuclear war as a category that makes it possible to conceptualize crisis on a planetary scale. Even the most apocalyptic of cultural narratives derives its power from the claim to know what happens in the end. The Deindustrialization of America. materially improved the text. which include particular technologies such as the automobile but also extend to notional characters such as the environment. including key points of contention. without attachment to an object. which is to say. such as Cowie et al. immersed in what we believe to be another interlude on the way to pleasure or progress or the very next thing. 2Here I draw upon Seigworth and Gregg’s (2010) conceptualization of affect as a phenomenon that traffics in something visceral that exceeds emotion. however. For political ecologies of the precarious. Hothi’s (2005) account of manufacturing decline in Britain uses the automotive industry as its test case. (2003) and High and Lewis (2007). it is worth reading Bluestone and Harrison’s 1984 classic. On the decline of manufacturing in what would come to be called post-industrial economies. From Chicago to Delhi to Venice.

lies beyond the scope of this essay. and White in this issue for illustrations of the very different forms that post-Fordist nostalgia can take. see Narain and Krupnick (2007:10). see Smith and Lourie (2009).g. which identified a historical shift from mass production to flexible specialization that generated profits through customization rather than high-volume production of identical goods (Vallas 1999). the one thing they can’t imagine giving up. lists shares on stock exchanges in Mumbai. where some believed it dispelled the unhealthful miasma produced by organic decomposition. such a topic would clearly fall within the purview of political ecologies of the precarious as I have elaborated the concept here. see Hansen (2009) and Kolbert (2006). (2010). As Foster (1988) and McIntosh (2006) have pointed out. and Stewart and Harding (1999). for all.). Wilson 1995). on the other. Junko Edahiro (2010) reports that some young people in Japan. which operates the flyway. see Martin (1995). 8See. 9For 10At critical perspectives on apocalyptic thought. 2010) must confront more than ideologically framed “strategies of denial. 16For 17For example. While an analysis of the relationship between the postcolonial politics of Peláez and Holloway (1990) see post-Fordist theory as a revival of earlier forms of technological determinism that leaves little place for social struggle. html). Molé. see Boyer (1992).d. the Yogacara school within the Mahayana lineage. 20See www. a major greenhouse gas.KATH WESTON 4See 5See 6See 7In the discussion by Muehlebach and Shoshan of post-Fordism as dreamscape in the introduction to this collection. Foster et al.” however institutionalized those strategies might be. when families made special trips to see them and advertisers yoked their products to nationalist dreams. the language of flexibility mechanisms in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Available at http://unfccc. Flexibility also featured prominently in the Flexible Specialization (neo-Smithian) approach to theorizing post-Fordism. who describes the salutary effects that coal smoke was often said to have in early 19th century Britain. and Watts (2006). 19For more on the (post)colonial politics of dirt.. the same time. For examples of catastrophist discourse in scientific writing on environmental issues. with Ford himself firing thousands of workers to underwrite his offer of a “depressionbeating wage. see Patel (n. 12On Ford’s labor politics and the introduction of the Five Dollar Day. 21On the historical reception of advertising billboards in India since the 1960s. Allison. 11See Thorsheim (2006). see Burke (1996) and McClintock (1995).int/resource/docs/convkp/kpeng.” Their primary affective attachment to a technology is to the mobile phone. have come to feel that owning a car is “not cool. For a policy-oriented overview of alternative automotive technologies. On the application of the rhetoric of flexibility to bodies in the context of labor relations during the post-Fordist period. but not. (n. 50 percent of Americans described themselves as worrying “a great deal” about global warming (Jones 2010). and debates about pollution or environmental degredation in the postcolony. Robbins and Palmer (1997). 451 . as well as May (1982).d. The Noida Toll Bridge Company Ltd. while others have argued that post-Fordism represents a kind of neo-Fordism because it is not sufficiently distinctive (Wood 1993) and questioned the coherence of the construct of Fordism altogether (Foster 1988). 2010. see Toro et al. 15Some authors have emphasized continuities between Fordist and earlier forms of production (Norcliffe 1997. significantly.dndflyway.” 13For 14See an example of this sort of exposé. Kanpur. and London. the research of Ampelli et al.. Steinmetz (2010:294).) on the viability of recycling carbon dioxide. Ford’s public relations triumphs should not obscure the precarity of employment even during the heyday of Fordism. On the exponential growth of car ownership in Delhi. 18See Ashenburg (2008) and McClintock (1995). Meyer (1981). for instance. many. a country with extensive train networks. see his own account (Ford 1923). insofar as its exploration of the relationship of affect and embodiment to relations of production shows why calls for “ecological revolution” (e. O’Leary (1994). back into liquid fuels. on the one hand. this essay bears on the problem of denial.

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2009. “The Japanization of Fordism. climate change. os sentidos ‫ﺳﻴﺎﺳﺎت اﻟﺒﻴﺌﺔ ﻟﻠﻤﺘﺰﻋﺰع‬ ‫ اﻟﺤﻮاس‬،‫ اﻟﺒﻴﺌﺔ‬،‫ اﻟﺘﻜﻨﻮﻟﻮﺟﻴﺎ‬،‫ اﻟﺠﺴﺪ‬،‫ اﻷﺛﺮ‬،‫ اﻟﺘﻐ اﳌﻨﺎﺧﻲ‬،‫ ﺳﻴﺎﺳﺔ اﻟﺒﻴﺌﺔ‬:‫اﻟﻜﻠ ت اﻟﺠﺎﻣﻌﺔ‬ 455 . meio ambiente. Wilson. “Henry Ford’s Just-in-Time System. окружающая среда. организм. transformação climatica. Wood.” International Journal of Operations & Production Management 15(12):59-75. Golden. affect. James M.” Economic and Industrial Democracy 14:535-555. технология. Foreign language translations: Political Ecologies of the Precarious Keywords: Political ecology. 1993. CO: Fulcrum Publishing. 1995. body. environment. 意识 Политические экологии неустойчивости Ключевые слова: политическая экология. senses 论不稳定性之政治生态 关键词 : 政治生态 . tecnologia. saudade. Daniel R. 身体 .KATH WESTON Wildcat. technology. 气候变化 . аффект. Red Alert!: Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge. 环境 . Stephen. 科技 . чувства Ecologias Politicas do Precário Palavras chaves: Ecologia politica. изменение климата. 效应 . corpo.