Sarah E. Vaughn. Engineering Vulnerability: In Pursuit of Climate Adaptation. 2022 Durham: Duke University Press. pp256.
The unfolding effects of climate change are increasingly recognised for their relationship with racialised and colonial histories of inequality and dispossession. From the threat of sea levels rise affecting low-lying South Pacific islands (Farbotko and Lazarus, 2012) and delta regions like the Bangladeshi Sundarbans (Dewan, 2021), to the capacity of extreme weather to expose failing and corrupted infrastructures as in the catastrophic flooding in Libya in September 2023, climate change is both revealing and exacerbating global inequalities and historically embedded relations of power and control. However, whilst we know this in principle, rarely do we see the kind of careful and grounded ethnographic analysis of the actual entanglements of climate change, racial politics and infrastructure that we are treated to in Sarah Vaughns’ fascinating book Engineering Vulnerability. Focusing on the Guyanese response to widespread flooding which hit the country in 2005, this book offers an important contribution to our understanding of how climate change both plays out and reworks racial and settler colonial politics. It illuminates how racialised infrastructural histories inform contemporary attempts to confront and deal with climate change, whilst showing how climate change adaptation can operate both as a practice of resilience and a method for the development of what Vaughn calls counter-racial thinking.
The book opens by locating this study in the social and material landscape of Guyana. Here a local landscape of peat bogs is creatively set alongside the political concept of apaan jaat, a Hindi term that was brought to Guyana by Indian indentured laborers in the 19th Century and has since became a local vernacular for describing a complex form of local racialised politics that revolves around the importance of ‘supporting one’s own.’ Building on a weaving together of environmental and political concerns and nodding to the importance of racial politics in the Guyanese context, climate change adaptation is introduced as a grounded techno-political practice within which racialised and counter-racial modes of thinking are enacted. I found counter-racial thinking a novel concept for an anthropology of climate inequality, for it productively draws attention to race whilst also noting the conditions within which the existing structures of racialised politics might be being rethought.
In chapter one of Engineering Vulnerability we are taken to the time of the 2005 flood when weeks of heavy rainfall, followed by an intense two weeks of storms, caused extensive flooding along the coast and in villages near the river Mahaica near the Guyanese capital Georgetown. As with all such disasters, the weather alone was not to blame for the flooding. In this case it was directly caused by the decision of engineers managing the East Demerara Water Conservancy (EWDC) reservoir to open a series of sluice gates to stop the water from breaching the banks, a decision that meant certain villages were flooded, many for several months. Although floods had been a part of the landscape for many years, the scale of the 2005 flood and the challenge that the engineers faced in managing the levels in the reservoir disrupted the usual methods of dealing with and thinking about flood risk. It required engineers to reconsider their approach to managing the EDWC, as well as introducing new issues such as what to do about the populations displaced by the floods in ways that cut through existing racial politics in the country. Climate change thus emerges here not just as a threat to people but as a form of what Ulrich Beck (2015) has termed ‘emancipatory catastrophism’ in which the scale and scope of disasters open up trajectories of social order that did not exist before.
Chapter two takes this event and casts it back through the history of racial and water politics in Guyana. The importance of damming, channelling and water management to the formation of a sugar economy, allows Vaughn to tell a story about the control of water that simultaneously reveals racialised labour histories in the context of settler colonialism. Dutch colonists, themselves well acquainted with the challenge of engineering water, were quick to realise that settled agriculture in Guyana would require flood defences and commandeered first slave labour and then indigenous labourers to help reclaim land for sugar plantations. When the British took over control of the country, slave labour was replaced by indentured laborers from India, and these racialised divisions subsequently affected the patterns of land ownership, flood management and electoral politics in Guyana up to the present day. What Vaughn is particularly interested in, is how this racialised socio-material settlement was disrupted when the 2005 flood hit the country and new urgency arose to reinvest in flood infrastructure that called for a politics that went beyond apaan jaat.
Moving from the histories of floodwater management to a contemporary techno-politics of water engineering, Chapter 3 explores the interleaving of engineering expertise, the diverse geographies of flood management techniques, and a particularly interesting link between Indo-Guyanese experiences and local engineering sensibilities. It offers an unusual and welcome account that de-universalises engineering knowledge, showing how expert knowledge about matters such as rain, water, drainage channels, mosquitos and disease become located within a racialised landscape that both opens up and closes down technical possibilities for dealing with the risks of flooding. Chapter 4 furthers this account of the localisation of technopolitics by narrating the politics of canal reparation and dredging, showing how public works become tied to electoral politics. However rather than stopping at the diagnosis of infrastructure as political, Vaughn goes one step further, returning here to the idea that climate adaptation might actually have counter-racial effects. Comparing the Guyanese experience with that of Tuvaluan climate refugees or Appalachian coal miners whose symbolic identities are refigured in times of ecological and industrial transition, Vaughn argues that climate change creates an opening for novel reappropriations and reworkings of racialised dynamics of inclusion/exclusion.
The second half of the book strikes a more ethnographic tone that nicely complements the archival focus of the first half of the book. In Chapter 5 Vaughn shows how engineers cultivate intimacies with environmental materials including as pegasse (peat), clay and also numbers, capturing this intimacy through the concept of the ‘love story.’ Intimacies with materials are shown to be far from universal. Instead sentiments of care and desire serve to create contours of difference between those for whom materials have different capacities and potentialities.
The politics of the future forms the focus of Chapter 6, which explores contemporary activities of disaster preparedness and the challenges that those trying to tame the future face when having to grapple with the nuanced and sometimes affective relationship that engineers have with the materials that they deal with. The chapter also casts the net of the ethnography outwards, showing how the concept of disaster preparedness links the Guyanese concerns about climate flood risk, to experiences of disaster management in Haiti and beyond. Through this narration, Vaughn tackles a complex set of relations that entangle black masculinity, the de-racialising practice of bureaucratic work, and attempts to actively erase embedded political affiliations based on apaan jaat.
The final ethnographic chapter brings us down to earth to tackle what Vaughn terms ‘the ordinary’ as a terrain of knowledge. The ordinary is often taken as an unremarkable register of ethnographic research, but Vaughn does something more interesting with the concept, showing how the ordinary comes to have a particular purchase in attempts to devise new ways of dealing with climate induced risks. Following a volunteer programme that seeks to educate people as to how they can protect themselves and their communities, Vaughn argues that “Ordinary life is something perhaps like the geostrata from which the expert emerges, the precursor and precondition of thinking relations of accountability in the midst of a warming planet” (p. 195). The ordinary appears here not as simply the backdrop to infrastructural innovation, but rather a counter-racial practice wherein it is hoped that novel ways of dealing with emerging worlds might be found.
Although the title of the book is Engineering Vulnerability, I found this to be less a book about vulnerability, than a book about the relationship between climate change, infrastructure and race. It provides much needed substance to the argument that climate change is colonial in its effects, and cuts through the language of just transitions to ask profound questions about what kinds of histories transitions are grounded within, and what kinds of futures they might be opening up. Vaughn ends with reflections on Guyana’s current interest in becoming an oil state, a proposition that might seem bizarre given the evident concern with the increasing risks of flooding in the country. However, having travelled through the complex machinations through which environmental risks have been confronted over the past 150 years, this observation seems less strange than it might have done otherwise, instead raising new questions about how futures of energy and climate change in Guyana and beyond will have to continue to reckon with complex racial and material legacies, whilst also forging new relational imaginaries appropriate for a different kind of future.
Beck, Ulrich. 2015. Emancipatory Catastrophism: What does it mean to climate change and risk society? Current Sociology 63(1): 75–88.
Dewan, Camelia. 2022. Misreading the Bengal Delta: Climate Change, Development, and Livelihoods in Coastal Bangladesh. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Farbotko, Carol., and Heather Lazrus. 2012. The First Climate Refugees? Contesting global narratives of Climate Change in Tuvalu. Global Environmental Change 22(2): 382–390.
Hannah Knox is Professor of Anthropology at University College London. Her research explores the cultural imaginaries and techno-politics of infrastructures and environments in Europe and Latin America, with a particular interest in climate change, energy and data politics. Her most recent monograph is Thinking Like a Climate: Governing a City in Times of Environmental Change (Duke University press 2020). H.email@example.com
© 2023 Hannah Knox