Accepted Paper:

When nature outpaces culture: ecological identities in disastrous North Bihar, India  


Luisa Cortesi (International Institute of Social Studies)

Paper short abstract:

Problematized with a multiplicity of ecologies, the synchronic polarization between nature and culture and its implications on identity illuminates how people in North Bihar, India, know their environment and their disasters vis-à-vis global technologies and the neoliberal state.

Paper long abstract:

In the floodplains of North Bihar, flood-control measures have, instead of curtailing, multiplied and worsened the types of floods that occur in the area. At the same time, they have restructured the landscape in two different geographical spaces associated with two reciprocally constructed socio-cultural groups. Juxtaposing ethnographically-grounded narrations of place and space as well as of disaster, this paper reveals how local inhabitants interpret their cultural, political, environmental, and epistemological tension through the dichotomy between nature and culture.

Aware of the critique of structural, static, and logocentric dichotomies, the argumentation does not abide to a simplistic polarity, but qualifies it through a multiplicity of nuanced ecologies, and their dynamic spatio-temporal alignments and misalignments. Yet, the structural polarization of these multiple eco-cultural spaces becomes all the more significant through the analysis of local ways of coping with the changing pattern of disastrous inundations, the central policies and capillary powers of the neoliberal state, as well as global technologies of environmental management and their embedded knowledges.

Taking seriously these local categories also illuminates how people build, contest and perform their identity in the nature/culture opposition, and vis-a-vis disaster. This is particularly salient when, validating the agency of nature, the assumed synchrony between nature and culture is overturned. The paper concludes by pinpointing the limits of political ecology when severed from both the epistemological intricacies and the cultural tensions of a disastrous landscape.

Panel P100
Revisiting the culture/nature divide under the conditions of global forces