New Species of Environmental Politics: Taking Sides with Salmon in Coastal Alaska

Karen Hébert, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Anthropology, and School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Yale University, and Weatherhead Scholar, SAR

Colloquium, SAR Boardroom

Wednesday, October 28, 2015, 12:00–1:00 pm, Free

Karen Hébert, 2015-2016 Resident ScholarKaren Hébert, 2015-2016 Resident ScholarPhotography by Matthew Garrett. Courtesy of Karen Hébert.Karen Hébert, 2015-2016 Resident ScholarPhotography by Matthew Garrett. Courtesy of Karen Hébert.

Salmon has become the centerpiece of recent efforts to protest controversial resource development proposals in coastal Alaska. How has salmon emerged as such a mobilizing force, and what does this reveal about environmental politics in the present? Drawing on ethnographic research in southeastern and southwestern Alaska, this talk explores how changes to salmon production in the early 2000s helped reposition commercial fishing from an environmentally extractive endeavor into one conceived in terms of ecological stewardship. Whereas salmon was once viewed as a natural resource battled over by opposing user groups, it is increasingly interpreted today as an environmental good belonging to the collective. But belonging, in the sense of inclusion or affinity, is precisely what comes to be at issue in this shift, as taking sides with salmon in rural Alaska redraws lines of social struggle. Residents of coastal communities once competed to use salmon; they now compete to be useful to salmon as a means of gaining legitimacy in environmental contests. This facilitates potent forms of political action but also unevenly distributes the resources needed to successfully demonstrate salmon stewardship. The talk explores the implications, pointing to both the power and the limits of emergent ways of understanding the environment for generating a kind of environmentalism that might transcend histories of divisiveness and inequality.

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