Vulnerability

Intensified rainfall, species migration, and wildfires are just some of the disturbances that characterize vulnerability in the Anthropocene. Perhaps it is now a social fact that “we” humans are vulnerable to a changing climate, albeit in disparate ways. In many instances, the disturbances that make us vulnerable are unprecedented. They challenge our expectations about what it entails to live in at-risk environments.  My task in this brief essay is to explore the social epistemologies that guide perception and practices related to the management of vulnerability. This is an attempt to ask: what constitutes vulnerability in the Anthropocene? In posing this question I suggest that vulnerability involves learning to become aware of disturbance, a practice that affects how we organize social worlds and our affective investments in them.

The above question may incite unease, because it demands taking account of geopolitical efforts that have fallen short of curtailing anthropogenic harms to the planet. Some of the better-known efforts by policymakers include climate summits, where wagers are made on carbon markets even as preparations for the next disaster continue. To date, these summits have resulted in elaborate technical reports but inconsistent action as far as alleviating the vulnerability faced by certain human populations and ecologies. This track record reveals that the production of knowledge about vulnerability can create a sense of fleeting confidence in systems of security (Lakoff 2008).

Indeed, we tend to think of vulnerability as cutting human life short, but it can also engender social alliances, shape political institutions, and support infrastructures (Butler 2015, 123–53). Vulnerability is not only a condition of interdependency; it positions human bodies in the path of forces and things. It forges relations between humans and nonhumans at the same time that it calls into question the terms of human survival (Das 2010). This is a productive challenge for anyone thinking about the Anthropocene—an epoch characterized by humankind pressing itself into and recalibrating the rhythms of an already fractured earth.

One way to confront this challenge is to revisit assumptions about vulnerability that are embedded in dominant fields of knowledge production. Since its inauguration as a topic in fields such as political ecology and disaster studies, vulnerability has been defined through the lens of nature and society, subject and object, expert and nonexpert, resistance and agency. Studies tend to focus on the links between vulnerability and the affective state of injury. This emphasis on injury has allowed scholars to detail the uneven effects of climatic risks, such as hurricanes or droughts, on human populations. Here, injury is a kind of psychic or bodily wound (Clark 2011). In this way, scholars have argued that vulnerability can lead to losses that transform particular places into ones that are easily disturbed or disaster-prone.

While an emphasis on injury draws attention to the biopolitics that underwrite vulnerability as a concept, it does not problematize disturbance in its own terms. This distinction is important for two deceivingly simple reasons: while climatic risks may entail injury, their impacts are not always self-evident. Storms can and do shift paths. They swell and dissipate. They unfold over periods that do not necessarily correspond to forms and processes of bodily damage or renewal. They often prompt human engagements with places that cause pronounced changes in ecosystems cutting across spatial-temporal scales (Tsing 2015). From this perspective, what needs to be understood is the capacity to notice disturbance and its relevance to everyday life. One way to analyze this skill set is to untangle the processes whereby knowledge practices traffic in, and elicit, particular kinds of affects.

For instance, take my field site on the fringe of urban Guyana, in the former squatter town Sophia where flooding is an ordinary occurrence. In January 2005, a storm led to the area’s highest recorded monthly average rainfall and the worst flooding in the country’s history, leaving residents stranded in water for weeks. Since the disaster, residents have launched door-to-door vulnerability surveys. They have reported that shifting rainfall patterns, unwieldy housing construction, and piecemeal public works are the primary sources of their vulnerability. Moreover, they have insisted that while they expect floods, it is difficult to anticipate their intensity or their cascading effects in terms of outbreaks of disease and changes in drainage flow. All that some residents can offer are hints: for example, the way mud accumulates on their shoes, their pets’ movements, or the arrival of politicians at community centers offering relief supplies. Expressing concerns about the limited utility of the surveys, many residents simply repeated, “This is what vulnerability looks like.”

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The flooded yard of a Sophia home. Photo by Sarah Vaughn.

Residents’ concerns were made most palpable when state-sponsored civil engineers repaired canals. This work took place on politicized terrain, with residents obstructing canal arteries, demanding land plots, or seeking international aid for climate adaptation, even as others collaborated with engineers. The vulnerability surveys surfaced residents’ decades-long acceptance of the way in which flooding had become currency for securing modes of state care. Their exchanges with engineers enabled not only the circulation of information, but also complex feelings of aspiration, resentment, trust, and suspicion.

Against this backdrop, vulnerability is a concept that indexes more than injury. It constitutes a range of affective investments that force us to learn to sense and live with disturbance. At stake is whether global and local policy responses to climate change bind certain human populations to catastrophic futures or create conditions to chart new ones. By paying attention to how classificatory schemes like vulnerability circulate, we are in a better position to discern what these responses make possible or foreclose.

References

Butler, Judith. 2015. Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Clark, Nigel. 2011.  Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage.

Das, Veena. 2010. “Sexuality, Vulnerability, and the Oddness of the Human: Lessons from the Mahabharata.” borderlands 9, no. 3: 1–17.

Lakoff, Andrew. 2008. “The Generic Biothreat, or, How We Became Unprepared.” Cultural Anthropology 23, no. 3: 399–428.

Tsing, Anna. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.