Teaching Horizoning and Responding to Climate Change with Adriana Petryna

Photo by Matt Howard.

This post builds on the research article “Wildfires at the Edges of Science: Horizoning Work amid Runaway Change,” which was published in the November 2018 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

This post is designed as a resource for use with Petryna’s article to explore the temporal politics and ethics of climate change and emergency response with advanced undergraduates, especially for courses in anthropology, science studies, environmental studies, and political science, as well as the environmental sciences and ecology. Included are suggested learning goals, discussion questions, and an in-class exercise. Our interview with Petryna may also be of interest.

Learning Goals

  • Define the concept of horizoning and how it relates to thinking and intervening in the face of a runaway problem
  • Critically analyze how different temporal orientations toward climate change can configure the problem differently
  • Describe the dominant approach to fire management in the United States, and current challenges for emergency responders facing wildfires fueled by climate change
  • Drawing on ethnographic material from the article, discuss the ethical and political challenges posed by the unstable temporal and epistemic horizons of intervention in wildfire management and/or emergency response
  • Discuss wildfire as an example of runaway change, and apply this understanding to other natural disasters and climate-related phenomena.

Discussion Questions

Begin class with these questions to develop a common understanding of the article before the in-class exercise. The questions could also be used as writing prompts for students if your class has an online discussion board.

  • What does it mean to lose (or gain) a foothold amid changing realities?
  • What is horizoning work? How is it a departure from dominant forms of projection and action in response to potentially irreversible change?
  • What is the tension or disconnect between responding to a changing climate and responding to an emergency (like a wildfire)? How does it play out in this article?
  • In this article, we learn that the U.S. Forest Service has had a century-long policy of fire suppression. What have been some of the implications of this policy and attitude toward fire? Do the fire researchers in the article share this view?
  • Why is retreating from wildfire difficult to imagine, for both firefighters and policymakers?

In-Class Exercise: Concept Mapping and Identifying Actionable Time

Set aside around forty-five minutes for this exercise, including reports from groups and classwide discussion. You will need large pieces of flipchart paper and markers, or else sections of whiteboard/chalkboard and markers/chalk.

Divide the class into small groups. Ask the groups to think of another example of a disaster fueled by runaway climate change. You may want to point students to the passage at the bottom of page 571, where Petryna describes the shift to a new ecological milieu, a new normal of runaway change. Groups should identify a phenomenon that may appear to be an anomalous event (a wildfire, a hurricane) but that stabilizes over time into a new ecological condition (longer fire seasons, more frequent storms).

Students may choose an example that has been discussed in class or something they have heard about, read about, or experienced firsthand. Assure the students that they do not need to be experts on the topic. Possible scenarios include: melting glaciers, sea level rise, storm surges, hurricanes, and drought. It may be helpful to provide students with background information, such as news articles or short case studies. Consider posting them to your course website in advance. The Union of Concerned Scientists has compiled a list of global warming impacts that could be useful.

Depending on the length of your class, you may want to provide the students with a handful of examples ahead of time and assign one to each group.

Ask each group to draw a concept map to explore and organize what they know about the event or scenario they have chosen to focus on. What do they know about its myriad causes and effects? What kinds of people and institutions might be involved in responding to it?

Next, looking at the disaster within a larger set of entanglements, the groups should experiment with identifying horizons for action. Below is a set of questions that can help guide their discussions. Ask each group for a volunteer to take notes on the conversation, in preparation for reporting back to the class as a whole.

Discussion Questions for Group Activity

  • Imagine yourselves occupying one or more than one role—for instance, as scientists, emergency responders, policymakers, environmental advocates, and so on—in the face of the system in crisis that you have mapped out. How might you carve out an object of knowledge or a space of intervention? What opportunities for human action exist, and at what scales?

The point here is not to come up with a fix to the problem at hand. Remember, Petryna suggests that horizoning work requires highly local, specific, and practical forms of knowledge, as well as “labors of continuous recalibration amid physical worlds on edge.” The key in this exercise is to experiment with thinking about different temporal and spatial orientations to the problem.

  • What happens when you shift the temporal horizon of your approach to the problem—say, from the hourly to the daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly?

Once the allotted time for discussion is up, ask a representative from each group to briefly present their concept map. Then, as a class, go over the discussion questions, inviting members from each group to contribute insights from their conversation.

To conclude, ask the class to reflect on the opening discussion. Having completed this activity, do they have additional thoughts on the questions discussed at the beginning of class? Or on Petryna’s article more generally?

Further Reading

Center for Investigative Reporting. 2018. “America’s Ring of Fire.” Reveal News series.

Fortun, Kim. 2013. “Disaster: Integration.” Field Notes, Cultural Anthropology website, April 2.

Masco, Joseph. 2017. “The Crisis in Crisis.” Current Anthropology 58, S15: S65–76.

Ulturgasheva, Olga, and Barbara Bodenhorn. 2017. “Climate Strategies: Thinking through Arctic Examples.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A 375.

Further Listening

Amid the raging 2018 forest fire season, several excellent podcasts were produced, which are entertaining and accessible pedagogical resources to accompany the activities described above.

Cagle, Susie. 2018. “Fire and Rain.” Podcast episode. 99 Percent Invisible, August 7.

Joyce, Stephanie. 2018. “Built to Burn.” Podcast episode. 99 Percent Invisible, July 31.

MacDonald, Colleen. 2018. “The Science of Forest Fires: Culture, Climate, and Combustion.” Podcast episode. Got Science?, July 23.