On the political nature of cyanobacteria: intra-active collective politics in Loweswater, the English Lake District.
Keywords: collective, politics, cyanobacteria, phosphorus, environmental management, STS
This paper brings together STS, (1) posthumanist, and environmental management thinking about socioenvironmental problems to open up new avenues for addressing such problems in practice. Specifically, it shows how posthumanist and STS theories that take 'realness' as continually emerging within relations (Barad, 2007; Law, 2004; Verran, 2001) have been brought into direct affiliation with things, publics, and the management of human-nonhuman relations in the context of water catchment management in Loweswater. Loweswater is a hamlet of houses, a church, a hotel, and several farmsteads scattered around a small lake (also called Loweswater) in Cumbria, the English Lake District. Here, for three years (between 2007 and 2010) an interdisciplinary, participatory approach was developed that brought local residents, environmental agency representatives, farmers, local business owners, and natural and social scientists together with nonhuman actants in a 'new collective' (Latour, 2004) that grappled with deteriorating water quality. The collective was named the Loweswater Care Project (hereafter LCP) by its participants. The arguments advanced in this paper are based on both authors' experiences of participating in this collective.
The notions of 'new collective' and 'intra-active collective politics'--the latter proposed here as a definition of the approach adopted by this collective and explained in the next section--are intricately linked. New collectives, as Latour (2004) envisages them, embrace a metaphysics that erodes the dualism between society and nature, subject and object, human and nonhuman. They bring together (or collect) the multiplicity of associations between humans and nonhumans that are entangled in a specific issue and, in doing so, engage in politics proper, or what Latour defines as "the entire set of tasks that allows the progressive composition of a common world" (2004, page 53). The roles of human participants in such collectives, whether as "politicians, scientists, moralists or economists" (page 53), are understood as complementary and nonhierarchical, and it is through their reciprocal relationships and their relations with nonhumans that collectives can articulate and represent what is common to them. This paper analyses how this understanding of a new collective as an assemblage of humans and nonhumans shaped the LCP and its practices. First, though, we need to say a few words about the issue that brought the LCP together.
Cyanobacteria (or blue-green algae) have thrived in Loweswater in the last few decades, intermittently appearing as a 'bloom'--a slick, oil-like, green, and potentially poisonous scum that floats on the surface of the lake. Over a period of three decades, these blue-green algae have become a more publicly visible issue in Loweswater, 'blooming' ever more frequently. As a result, we suggest, they have begun to exercise considerable agency and have assembled a highly heterogeneous public around themselves. Gradually, and over the period of our research in Loweswater (2004 to the present), we have seen their status change: initially seen as a symbol of deterioration and possibly the cause of destructive relations, they have become a catalyst for new, productive relations by inspiring a lively politics in this seemingly unchanging valley (Latour, 2005; Marres 2012; Marres and Lezaun, 2011). To appreciate the significance of this transformation, we need to say a few words about how 'the problem' of cyanobacteria and our scientific knowledge of them were linked to an initial closing down of politics in Loweswater.
In the late 1990s scientific research funded by the Environment Agency (EA) [the nondepartmental public body financed by the UK government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)] considered for the first time the underlying conditions that allowed cyanobacteria to flourish in Loweswater. Accordingly, in October 1999 paleolimnologist Helen Bennion and her colleagues from University College London, under contract from the Environment Agency, drilled a 98-cm sediment core into the lake bed at a water depth of 15.5 m (the deepest part of the lake). The core's contents pointed to an ecology of diatoms (single-celled, silicaceous algae, which include cyanobacteria) in Loweswater that signalled a deterioration in lake water quality (Bennion et al, 2000). It told the researchers a story of changing human and nonhuman relations that had fostered nutrient enrichment in the lake and suggested the likelihood of a significant movement of the chemical element phosphorus from land to lake. This movement was thought to be connected to shifts in land-use and farming practices that had occurred as far back as the 1850s.
Following these findings, the conventional approach of the Penrith branch of the EA in the mid-2000s was to act in Loweswater as if nature had yielded the answers to the problem of blue-green algae through science, obviating a need for any kind of politics or collective decision making. The assumption that phosphorus (P) was the main nutrient controlling phytoplankton production in Loweswater (that is, the limiting nutrient) was uncontested, as was the view that the concentration of soluble reactive (biologically available) phosphorus in the water column was extremely low throughout the growing season (Maberly et al, 2006; Norton et al, 2011). These assumptions suggested that it was largely 'new' P entering the lake that was being rapidly incorporated into algal biomass. Evidence from Bennion et al's (2000) sediment core was thus taken by the EA to indicate that raised P levels in the lake had resulted from anthropogenic sources of P on the land that were continuing to reach the waters of the lake. Farming practices, especially nutrient applications to fields (such as fertilisers, manures, and animal feed), pesticide usage, and the inappropriate storage of animal feed or waste were thought to be the main practices underpinning this flow of P to the lake (Bennion et al, 2000; Haygarth, 2005; Heathwaite and Johnes, 1996). In consequence, the EA resorted to a range of actions at Loweswater following standard protocol. Farmers considered to be in breach of farm waste regulations were sent a letter threatening them with penalties unless they changed their practices. Should they disregard these warnings, they could be prosecuted.
Returning to the interpretation of STS scholar Latour, we can see how such a situation could be interpreted as a one in which a foundationalist 'Scientific model of knowledge (symbolised largely by the use of a capital 'S' for the word 'science'--ie, Science) took the place of politics. (2) Accepting Scientific matters of fact at face value, Latour holds, renders matter mute and nature incontestable; it leads to a political vacuum (Latour, 2004, page 10). This vacuum created by the overreliance on Scientific facts and technocratic approaches to complex problem solving has been referred to in the academic literature as the 'postpolitical' condition (Moufife, 2005; Ranciere, 2006; Tsouvalis and Waterton, 2012a; Zizek, 1999). In Loweswater phosphorus, the chemical element, together with its biological partner, cyanobacteria, did exactly that: they were treated as matters-of-fact and, as such, they rendered those blamed for their abundance--Loweswater's farmers--stigmatised and mute.
However, the farmers did not stay mute for long. Contesting the reduction of this complex situation to a single scapegoat (themselves), local farmers formed a group in 2001 with the aim to find out more about, and ameliorate, the phosphorus/algae problem. The Loweswater Improvement Project (LIP), as this proactive group was known, was funded by the North West Regional Development Agency. From 2001 to 2004, it worked with ecologists from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) at Lancaster and gained small grants to test soils for nutrient levels, create buffer zones of seminatural vegetation, reroute waste waters through farm yards, and install new septic tank and waste water systems on some properties adjacent to the lake.
The LIP, in effect, was an early foundation of the LCP. In 2004 a small grant from the UK Research Council's interdisciplinary Rural Economy and Land Use Programme (RELU) was obtained, and the research undertaken as part of this grant confirmed the local desire to broaden the stakeholder base of the LIP (Waterton et al, 2006). This led to the more comprehensive project Understanding and Acting in Loweswater, funded by RELU between 2007 and 2010, which is the focus of this paper. Central to this project, as we have already explained, was the creation of a new participatory mechanism based on the principles of a 'new collective' that would bring insights from a variety of actors together and into correspondence (Norton et al, 2014; Tsouvalis and Waterton, 2012b). The LCP was this mechanism, and it turned out to be a fascinating, inventive, and experimental forum for the practice of intra- active collective politics, as we describe below.
The nexus between cyanobacteria and the publics they were gathering around them, combined with the RELU grant, offered the opportunity to think carefully in the LCP about the agency of matter (in the first instance, matter such as P and cyanobacteria) and to work out what such a refocusing means for agency, responsibility, and collective environmental politics. In the context of adaptive catchment management, working with these ideas was potentially a radical move. It meant that things, nature, or matter were seen as being centre stage and vital, instead of simply being treated as objects of study that entered the political arena 'bound and gagged' in the form of Scientific representations (Latour, 2004). In Latour's terms, this allowed for a radical interrogation of thing-ness and for the proliferation of connections and the practice of politics proper. This is elaborated below. In the following section, we discuss elements of the STS and posthumanist traditions that have sought to endow nonhuman entities with agency and elaborate how this shaped the ways in which the LCP worked. This, in turn, is followed by a brief section on 'matter reality' where we explain more fully what 'matter' means in this paper and what we mean by the notion of intra-action. In the three subsequent examples we show how the LCP and cyanobacteria gathered a multiplicity of associations around themselves and how the LCP practised intra-active collective politics--a lively politics where nonhumans play a central role. In conclusion we discuss the implications of intra-active collective politics for certain kinds of environmental management.
Posthumanism, STS, and the workings of the LCP
The LCP invited anyone concerned enough about the lake to participate in the collective, and the thinking within the LCP was shaped by all participants, including ourselves. As STS scholar participants interested in STS and posthumanist theory, we brought to the collective a 'materialist sensibility', sometimes referred to as 'new materialism' (Braidotti, 2006; Dolphijn and Van der Tuin, 2013). This sensibility has emerged in the humanities disciplines in response to traditions that see publics as primarily constituted by linguistic, deliberative, or abstract communicative processes and has turned attention to the ways in which "objects, devices, settings and materials, not just subjects, acquire explicit political capacities, capacities that are themselves the object of public struggle and contestation, and serve to enact distinctive ideals of citizenship and participation" (Marres and Lezaun, 2011, page 491). As a result, the LCP developed an interest in the devices, objects, substances, and material settings in and through which publics are mobilised, and how these elements constrain, inform, and constitute political or ethical involvement (Marres and Lezaun, 2011; see also Barry, 2001; Bennett, 2004; Braun and Whatmore, 2010; Coole and Frost, 2010).
We were also aware of the continuing influence of actor-network theory (ANT) approaches developed in STS, and of the fact that the theoretical engagements of such approaches have long carved out the possibility of apprehending nonhuman objects, things, or matter, as having agencies that were formally only attributed to humans. These agencies are conveyed as part of, and achieved within, human-nonhuman 'networks', 'assemblages' or 'coproductions' (as ANT, post-ANT, and coproductionist strands of STS have described them). Such assemblages are constantly forged and reforged in the continual making and unmaking of a complex, hybrid world. As participants of the LCP, we were interested, in fact, in drawing both on posthumanist and on STS approaches, whilst acknowledging their significant differences. Particularly relevant to our aims were the opportunities they both provide for understanding the ongoing and material coproduction of the world as it articulates with publics, with politics, and with decision making--for understanding, in other words, how networks, assemblages, coproductions, or matters become public:
"the time seems right to shift our attention to other ways of considering public matters. And 'matters' are precisely what might be put centre stage. Yes, public matters, but how?" (Latour, 2005, page 4).
A further important objective of the LCP was to draw on and learn from previous work on participatory catchment management and previous STS critiques of participatory initiatives, with a particular emphasis on the politics of knowledge and on leaving open the definition of 'the problem' (Tsouvalis and Waterton, 2012b; Waterton et al, 2006). Within the LCP the research team of the RELU project (one sociologist of science, two human geographers, three ecologists, and a farmer, who took turns in facilitating debates within meetings) made particular efforts to make sure different voices were heard and listened to, and encouraged agonism and argument as part of the ongoing politics and debate. A commitment to a 'flat' nonhierarchical structure was upheld: no particular form of expertise was given priority or privilege (Norton et al, 2014; Tsouvalis and Waterton, 2012b). Through this approach the LCP came to think--more carefully and theoretically than is conventional in most participatory fora--about how different actors and publics had come to know cyanobacteria and what cyanobacteria are, as well as asking questions about their agency and their relations with other connected entities.
The LCP, in other words, explicitly addressed both epistemological and ontological issues through a philosophically informed approach to participation. Of course, this is not to say that all participants read Bruno Latour's Politics of Nature (2004) or Karen Barad's Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007) (see next section). Rather it is to suggest that the practices of the LCP reflected a commitment to epistemological and ontological experiment inspired by STS and posthumanist approaches. The LCP met on a bimonthly basis in Loweswater village hall from 2008 onwards. Its aims and objectives were set by the participants and followed up through research, talks, site visits, discussion, and debate. (3) Overall, fifteen evening meetings (5.30-9.00 pm) were held until December 2010, with much work also being done between meetings. On average meetings were attended by twenty-five participants, often more--sometimes by up to forty people.
For the researchers involved, the LCP stood for a way of deliberately avoiding the hollowing out of politics. As a new collective of humans and nonhumans, LCP participants were introduced to Latour's (2004) concerns, and they agreed from the start that:
* nature is not self-evident;
* knowledge and expertise have to be debated;
* uncertainty is accepted as the main condition humans are in (rather than a condition of knowing);
* the creation of connections between people and things is paramount; and
* doubt and questioning is extended to all representations.
In the LCP, participants concurred, there would be "no unmediated access to agreement; no unmediated access to the facts of the matter" (Latour, 2005, page 12). As a result, 'things', 'matters' and their very nature, as well as their knowability, were not only given credit for bringing a questioning public into being but also collectively and critically scrutinised and debated. Before we describe the practical implications of this approach in more detail, we briefly explain below what we mean by 'matter' and 'intra-active' collective politics.
As we have briefly suggested above, our thinking about 'new collectives' was complemented by a set of ideas advanced by Barad, the feminist STS scholar, that helped us rethink the politics of cyanobacteria in Loweswater. Barad's work offered a rich spatiotemporal sense of the agency of matter, and her book "Meeting the Universe Half-Way', published in 2007, was timely for our concerns. The book sets out a comprehensive agenda for rethinking the ontologies of things in a way that connects the posthumanist and STS sensibilities discussed above. In it, Barad lays out the concept of 'posthuman agential realism', and, as the LCP got underway, this concept started to feed into the way the researchers thought about the LCP. Agential realism involves a carefully crafted understanding of entities, their coming into being, and their agency. It expresses emerging relations through the notion of 'intra-action', which signifies the mutual constitution of already entangled agencies (2007, page 33). Barad proposes the concept of 'intra-action' in place of 'interaction' to undermine the belief in "individual independently existing entities or agents that pre-exist their acting upon one another" (Barad in Kleiman, 2012, page 77). Rather, 'individuals' materialise in intra-action, and agency is seen as an intra-active achievement. Entities are continually coming into being, an understanding that sensitised LCP participants to perceive 'things' in the complexity of their relations and made us ask: 'how did these things, or relations, come into being, and how do they go on?'
A good illustration of intra-action can be found in Barad's discussion of scientific apparatuses. Rather than simply considering instruments or inscription devices as neutral and set in place before the action happens (the action being to objectively observe, discover, and record nature), Barad understands them as intra-acting with the phenomena they are designed to 'discover'. Apparatuses themselves constitute "specific material practices through which local semantic and ontological determinacy are intra-actively enacted" (2003, page 820). Intra-action therefore refers to a fundamental, complex, and contingent process whereby "new things come into the world, new worlds come forth, and worlds undergo an ongoing reconfiguring" (2007, page 170).
Barad's work may seem overly philosophical for a participatory collective to take on board, but it connects well with Latour's concern to see collectives undo matters of fact: both approaches continually question the 'facts of the matter' and understand these as epistemically and ontologically emergent, and relationally connected to other things or matters. Barad's interpretation of politics, too, complements Latour's approach. According to agential realism, " 'responsibility' is not about the right response, but rather a matter of inviting, welcoming, and enabling the response of the Other" (Barad in Kleinman, 2012, page 81). For Barad politics means 'response-ability', where a range of possible responses are invited: politics is a "relation always already integral to the world's ongoing intra-active becoming and not-becoming" (page 81). Bringing Latour and Barad together, we propose that the performance required of so-called 'new collectives' is one of intra- active collective politics. Such a strategy takes seriously how representations (scientific and otherwise) and the things that help us make them (instruments, apparatus, inscriptions) are potent materialities in themselves that participate in politics. It also invites experimentation by bringing issues of knowing, being, politics, responsibility/response-ability, and action into conversation. To exemplify what this means in practice, we now discuss three examples of intra-active collective politics enacted through the LCR
Opening up matters of fact
The global and the local merge and mingle in Loweswater in multiple ways (Norton et al, 2014). An early account of blooms on Loweswater relates how they had been noticed in September 1990 by a resident who, concerned, wrote to the owners of the lake bed, the National Trust (NT), to alert them of their presence. The Regional Land Agent of the NT promptly replied with a letter advising that, having rapidly consulted with the (then) National Rivers Authority, the Chief Medical Officer of Health, and the Allerdale Environmental Health Department, the NT had felt the responsibility to act by putting notices up around the shores of the lake. As the Regional Land Agent's letter and figure 1 show, the NT interpreted the presence of algae as a potentially dangerous situation for humans and nonhumans alike.
From then on, the ever more frequent blooms of cyanobacteria, in conjunction with emerging research and the signs erected around the lake, began to suggest to many that things were not well in Loweswater. Those who witnessed the blooms were often disturbed by their vitality, which they interpreted not only as 'killing' the lake but also as threatening the livelihoods of those connected with it: "Well I mean if we have a dead lake we've got a dead community". (4)
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
From the early 2000s, however, a wider, international public also began to associate with Loweswater's cyanobacteria. In 2000, when Bennion et al's aforementioned report was published, blue-green algae were of great interest to the Environment Agency because it was anticipating the implementation of a new European Water Framework Directive (WFD) (EC, 2000). Issued by the European Parliament and European Council (2000/60/EC) in 2000, this directive was to establish a framework for pan-European community action in the field of water policy. (5) It was to impose legally binding demands on all EU member states to achieve 'good ecological status' (an internationally comparable ecological state) in European freshwater bodies. Partly because of the presence of cyanobacteria, (6) Loweswater looked likely to fail this European water quality standard.
The international directive generated much interest among LCP participants from 2007 onwards. In an early LCP meeting in 2008, finding out how the WFD worked was identified as an important objective, and this was followed up at the fourth LCP meeting. Two talks were hosted on the subject of the WFD, one given by an Environment Agency representative, the other by a PhD student from Lancaster University. Susan McKirdy from the EA outlined the main aims of the directive: to achieve good ecological and chemical status of all European fresh water bodies by 2015 and to prevent deterioration of their status; to promote sustainable water use; to protect and enhance protection of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems; and to ensure a progressive reduction of pollution in the ground water. Susan McKirdy also explained the complex classification of water quality underpinning the directive and the timescales within which water bodies would be expected to reach certain EU quality standards.
During the evening it was made clear that, following an EA assessment, Loweswater was not thought likely to meet the criteria for 'good ecological status' by 2015 and expected to achieve only 'moderate' status. Three elements--amongst some acknowledged unknowns (chemical status, for example, had not been assessed by this time)--appeared to be responsible for this: dissolved oxygen, macrophytes, and phytoplankton (or 'the algae'). It was explained, however, that the WFD did allow for alternative objectives to be set when good ecological status was unattainable. Consequently, Loweswater would be required to meet the criteria for good ecological status only by the much later date of 2027. This extension of the date by which the demands of the directive needed to be met was greeted with some surprise, as we shall see.
At LCP meetings such as this one, the relations of cyanobacteria, extending into EU policy and back again, with local consequences (failing to meet good ecological status) came to be of intense interest. Discussion, questioning, and debate that evening was tightly focused on the lake, on the water, its specific qualities, its burden of phytoplankton, and on the likelihood of it failing to meet this EU target. Amongst other connected factors, the algae were portrayed as causing this failure. During the talks given, feelings occasionally crept up that 'the facts' were presented as if they could 'naturally' give the LCP a sense of what to do. But the LCP had endorsed Latour's (2004) questioning spirit and was alive to Barad's (2007) interest in how things come into being (eg, through the classificatory apparatus of the WFD). As a new collective embroiled in intra-active collective politics, many LCP participants were sceptical of the idea that 'the facts' might tell the LCP what to do and that there might be a 'natural' course of action.
Several LCP participants, for example, wanted an acknowledgement of the uncertainty and contingent nature of the classification of 'poor', 'moderate', and 'good' ecological status based on the data provided by the EA. Demanding questions were asked about the suspected unevenness of the EA's data. The changing timelines of EU targets were also wearily commented upon as an inevitable 'shifting of the goal posts'. LCP participants also noted the incongruousness of the situation as a whole: here was an EU directive trying to control European water bodies (and those responsible for them) in a complex system in which it felt unlikely that such control could be gained. Indeed, drawing on the knowledge about the algae already achieved within the LCP by then, participants wanted recognition that there were important aspects of the flourishing of cyanobacteria that were ill understood. The relationship between the 'limiting' chemical element phosphorus, cyanobacteria, and other species in the lake was complex, and many uncertainties remained. The relationship between phosphorus locked up in lake-bed sediments and cyanobacterial blooms was unclear. The relative proportions of phosphorus coming from human dwellings and ongoing farm practices were unknown. As LCP participants grew to understand the complexity of the lake and its socioecological relations, the idea that the situation was controllable through the framework of the WFD seemed superficial.
It also became very clear at that meeting that the standards of a pan-European framework might not necessarily solve all the LCP's concerns. Questions began to surface: if the LCP could support some human actions that would improve the ratings of Loweswater within the EU WFD classification, would it have met its own (the LCP's) set of objectives? Would meeting the EU-sanctioned 'good ecological status' of the lake be a good enough proxy for getting to grips with and 'managing' all the relations that the LCP was beginning to understand as important in Loweswater?
That night, the facts about the algae, as authoritatively delivered by an EA employee, almost had politics in their grasp. However, the probing observations, doubts, and questions that many LCP participants continually put forward created space for many more questions about the relationship between this local setting and the EU framework, including the broad scope of the LCP's collective agency (rather than a narrow focus on the possibility of farmers solving the problem). With discussions reaching well beyond the WFD, the collective began to ask itself what it wanted to achieve, and what its responsibilities might be.
Cyanobacteria and the Earth's deep past
Our second narrative highlights spatiotemporal timescales in play that challenged the understanding of many LCP participants and made the notion of 'controllability' seem even more elusive. At the third LCP meeting, thirty-two out of the thirty-eight people decided that a top priority for the LCP should be to "find out more about the impact of 'maintenance issues'". By maintenance, participants were referring to common issues that many water catchments face--blocked drains, leaf litter, and dredging--and there was an underpinning concern amongst local residents that the lake was in some way 'blocked' or 'clogged up'. This priority was duly addressed through a small, LCP-commissioned research project that investigated relations between lake water and the load-carrying geology around Loweswater. (7) We narrate below the events that unfolded as results from this piece of research were presented at an LCP meeting.
Dr Nick Haycock, an expert consultant in hydrogeomorphology, together with the NT, had been tasked by the LCP to investigate how the geology of the Loweswater catchment affected the 'flow' and 'maintenance' issues of the lake. Having carried out fieldwork walking high up in the valleys around Loweswater, Haycock attended the twelfth LCP meeting on 7 June 2010 and spoke about his investigations and analysis. In the discussions that followed his talk, LCP participants considered spatial and temporal scales not previously regarded. According to Haycock (2010), the entire system in which the algae thrive is heavily influenced by the behaviours of the streams (locally known as 'becks') whose sources are located high up in the surrounding fells. His analysis focused on a small watercourse called Highnook Beck, which springs from a fell to the west of Loweswater and flows down eastwards beyond the south side of the lake, into the outflow of Loweswater, Dub Beck. Haycock reported that high above Loweswater, the channel of Highnook Beck enters a deep incised valley associated with the erosion of moraine material which, over thousands of years, and by the action of Highnook Beck, had formed an extensive 'debris fan' further downstream, towards the lake. On the surface of the debris fan he noted a number of relic channels suggesting that Highnook Beck, in the past, had had a more direct route into Loweswater.
Haycock suggested that Highnook Beck is the largest source of material movement in all of the valley complexes around the lake, and he proposed that the lake level of Loweswater is critically influenced, in storm periods, by the flow and water level of Highnook Beck at the point where it meets Dub Beck. He referred to the 'dominant role' that Highnook plays in the flows from Loweswater and suggested that if high sediment loads from Highnook have at any time blocked the channel at the point where it meets Dub Beck, then water levels in Loweswater could have risen, affecting the flow and ecology of the lake system.
Haycock's presentation and analysis caused an eruption of questions and suggestions that evening. There was a sense of controversy around his findings, not least because it was terribly hard to take in the scale of the intra-actions he was talking about, in both time and space. The LCP was being asked to consider, through a very particular professional lens, the connections between microscopic cyanobacteria, lake water levels, millennia- old glacial debris fans, and small becks eroding their own seemingly tiny valleys high up in the fells. As ever, many LCP participants expressed a healthy scepticism for Haycock's 'facts'. But they also connected these facts to questions of agency and responsibility. In essence, the picture that Haycock painted seemed to have an inevitability that disturbed a sense of collective agency. If the processes that 'control' cyanobacteria are so ancient, so geological, and spread over such a vast time and space, participants wondered what on earth the LCP could do to 'manage' the situation? When Haycock suggested fencing off particular sites of erosion high up in the fells, the discussion became by turns positive about local action (fencing parts of beck channels up in the fells was something the LCP could conceivably 'do') and fatalistic about the time and scale of the processes involved (how could something like fencing possibly make a difference to such vast processes with such inhuman timescales?). We were reminded that cyanobacteria themselves are ancient organisms that have existed for at least 3.5 billion years; however, their fate, their life cycles, and that of the mountains themselves are ongoing and, in Barad's sense, in constant intra-action. The LCP's sensibility to this meant that many in the LCP no longer had the urge simply to get to the facts of the matter: participants had entered into what Latour calls a more 'cosmopolitical' frame of thinking (Latour, 2004; Stengers, 1997). Cyanobacteria were appreciated as entities in deep intra-action with ancient and ongoing geological processes around the lake. Issues of history, materiality, agency, and contingency therefore intertwined in complex ways with simple notions of remediation through fencing or other means.
The recurring refrain 'It's not about the lake'
Our final example of the LCP's intra-active collective politics concerns the strong claim, heard at several LCP meetings: "It's not about the lake!" This refrain often featured in conversations in the village hall as a kind of irritated shout, a flash of provocation. The obvious knee-jerk reaction ('who could seriously claim this?' 'Surely the LCP is all about the lake and about the problem of the algae?') was often trumped in the LCP by the commitment to openness and connection. A comment that was hurled provocatively across the room like this had to be investigated!
To appreciate the progress made through the intra-active collective politics of the LCP that made such a provocation even possible, we need to say a few more words about Loweswater itself. Loweswater is situated in the Lake District National Park (LDNP) and was designated by the LDNP Authority as a Quiet Valley in the mid-1980s. Although this is not a legal designation, Loweswater is often locally referred to as a Quiet Valley, and this has fostered a sense not only of peacefulness but also of the valley's unchanging nature. This sense is reinforced by the look and feel of the landscape and the fact that its basic infrastructures (dry-stone walls, hedgerows, dwellings, and small country roads) have been carefully maintained over decades (Davies and Clarke, 2010; Tsouvalis et al, 2012). Belying this unchanging appearance, of course, is the ongoing work required to make places or things look the same (Dominguez and Silva, 2013). Despite appearances, social, demographic, economic, cultural, and natural changes have always shaped this valley, even if they are not always 'visible' (Tsouvalis, 1998; 2000). Since the mid-19th century, for example, population decline has intensified and age demographics have altered. There have been significant shifts in farm systems and practices, changes in services such as transport and schools, and an influx of generally wealthy 'off-comers' (term used to describe peopole settling in the area who are not local and generally have no family ties), which has meant, among other things, that property prices have become unaffordable for young people.
While many of these changes are specific to Loweswater, others are characteristic of modern rural societies more generally and remind us of broader social shifts and the crisscrossing of national and global dynamics within this 'local' setting. But it is important to note here that the sense that time has stood still in Loweswater, or that Loweswater is a Quiet Valley, has come to underpin a false assumption that Loweswater has little need for decision making or politics about change. In a sense, cyanobacteria challenge this assumption. Every time they bloom they become potent signals of a very vital change--that of deteriorating water quality which, in turn, erodes the image of rural purity and tranquillity. The blooming cyanobacteria force a response from many in the tranquil valley of Loweswater and beyond, and the LCP is a forum which encourages such responses to be formed and heard.
But let us return to the refrain 'It's not about the lake!' What did it signal, and what, through the openness of the LCP's commitment to different knowledges and ontologies, did it come to mean? 'It's not about the lake!', we suggest, was about not taking 'nature' (algae) at face value, not letting the facts of the matter 'do' the politics, but about demanding that the wider, vital, emergent, socioecological relations in the valley, made visible through the algae, be investigated. 'It's not about the lake!' was invariably an utterance from a farmer, or farmers, present in a particular meeting who saw the tight framing of meeting the EU WFD targets as nothing more than a bureaucratic sideshow, a moving circus (with an deadline of 2015 ... or 2027?) that did not focus on the real issues at stake at this time and in this place. What this utterance indicated was that what was at stake for many farmers was a situation that was witness to some very harsh changes, and some harsh politics, full of human emotion, and also full of contradiction and paradox. We need to give a little background to this.
As part of the LCP investigations, John Rockliffe, a local agricultural consultant, had been commissioned by the RELU researchers to carry out a farm interview survey with all farmers in the catchment (Rockliffe, 2009). The results of this survey suggested that, unless they squeeze the very last ounce of energy and nutrition from their land, local sheep and cattle farmers cannot begin to make a living. Farming, the survey concluded, is not sustainable in Loweswater. The income from traditional agricultural sources on the different agricultural holdings in the catchment amounted to as little as 32% of total income at one extreme and as much as 58% at the other end of the scale, with 50% being a 'typical' figure (Rockcliffe, 2009, page 4). Farm holdings often ran at a loss, with income from EU subsidies, diversified enterprises, and other employment in the family making up the difference. In 2008 a typical farm business income in Loweswater was found to be just 7000 [pounds sterling] per year.
Connected to this struggle for viability, Rockcliffe reported, were a number of stresses upon farmers. He found that labour on the holdings in the catchment comes almost entirely from the farmer, with some family labour also contributing: farm income is insufficient to pay for external sources of labour. Additionally, interview material (8) and literature reviews revealed that, in the mid to late 2000s, the typical upland Cumbrian farmer was facing a number of difficult challenges. These included: switching over to the most recent EU scheme (the 'single payment subsidy'); facing up to the many signals that their current model of farming is unsustainable; trying to increase levels of existing production, despite a need for diversification; the constraints of location for innovation and planning; a sense of 'losing the human' in farming, as no one takes the place of deceased farmers and farms come to be (S) 'amalgamated'. We saw how between 2004 and 2010 three out of thirteen Loweswater farms were indeed amalgamated. The remaining Loweswater farmers took on more land, worked longer hours, and kept more animals to keep their businesses going.
So when farmers quipped loudly in LCP meetings that, 'It's not about the lake, though, is it?' they were doing intra-active collective politics. They were asking other LCP participants to release their gaze upon the algae and to consider a wider politics of nature underway within the Cumbrian upland farming community. As they did this, they knew that this politics--in which there are evident disparities in income, entitlement to property, capital, and labour--is also perversely implicated in lake water quality. Their provocation was therefore complex and ironic in tone. They, like all in the LCP, had heard ecologist participants suggesting that an estimated 50-70% of the total load of the soluble element phosphorus found in the lake (the element that feeds or limits cyanobacteria) has come from the land, and that improved grassland in Loweswater has contributed around 60% to this load. They fully realised that, as they work to make around 7000 [pounds sterling]a year, their basic fertilising and animal husbandry practices were seen to be causing the pollution of the beautiful Lake District land and lake ecology. But, in the context of the LCP, they were confident in asserting that it was not just about the lake. They knew that the LCP did not let 'N'ature take the place of politics, and that what it wanted to foster was a proliferation of connections between people and things. And so they urged participants to explore the ironic, inequitable, and complex socionatural relations that hold together Loweswater's rural scene. The challenges and debates they raised had long been taboo: the idea that the farming community works to produce the 'rural idyll' (Newby, 1985) that wealthy retirees come to enjoy, but that this very production is carried out at great cost--not only to the farmer but to the complex ecologies of the land and water--is a sensitive issue to explore in a public forum. Such issues could now be discussed, but they were deep and culturally complex. Perhaps it was enough that they were raised: the farmers had gained the confidence to put them on the table for discussion. The LCP could not immediately offer a solution to the situation in which the farmers found themselves, but it could see that this situation had to be explored as part of its collective politics.
Reflections on management
As we tie together the implications of the three stories above we want to reflect briefly on issues of management. In this paper we have shown that cyanobacteria, in recent years and helped by their visibility in the form of algal blooms, have assembled a diverse public and inspired a lively intra-active collective politics around them (Tsouvalis et al, 2012). Describing cyanobacteria in this way, we hope to have shown that these and other nonhuman actants are part and parcel of vital human--nonhuman assemblages and that, as such, they participate in complex ways in politics proper, or what we have called intra-active collective politics. Initially, this theoretical perspective seemed to go against the grain of the interdisciplinary research programme that funded our study and that aimed to bring our work into correspondence with ideas about the management of the rural environment. Yet, below, we show how this 'clash' seems to have resolved itself.
As part of the RELU programme, the Loweswater experiment was partly concerned with interdisciplinarity: for our project this entailed the idea that it might be possible to highlight the significance of STS and posthumanist approaches within an in situ, ongoing case of environmental politics and catchment management. In 2009 the Director of the RELU programme, Philip Lowe, wrote to us to ask if we could give a presentation about our work to showcase the interdisciplinary work of RELU and to highlight the translations that this research might make into policy thinking. We accepted and were given a title for our slot: 'What does adaptation mean?'
This title, and its question, surprised us. It signalled that, from the 'outside', our research was seen to be a kind of STS-informed catchment management project, involving adaptation to some changing baseline. This seemed at odds not only with the theoretical resources we were working with, but with the philosophical ethos and practical connections being explored by the LCP. It was a disconcerting moment--and possibly, therefore, one to which we should attend carefully (Verran, 2002, page 729).
Taking the challenge of the given title quite literally, we consulted the online Oxford English Dictionary on the meaning of the term 'adaptation' and found many definitions, three of which seemed pertinent: "(1) The action or process of adapting, fitting, or suiting one thing to another. (2a) The process of modifying a thing so as to suit new conditions.... (5) Biol. Organic modification by which an organism or species becomes adapted to its environment." This deepened our concerns. The title we had been given indicated an assumption that our research might lead to change--in relation to an assumed, foundational environment or a set of conditions that could be known and that were, as a kind of baseline, assumed to be static.
It also brought us into close contact with a pragmatic domain of research--one that considers the practical management or governance of water catchments. Initially we thought we were doing something more experimental and philosophical than that, but as we looked more closely at the science of catchment management, we leamt that the commitment to think fluidly, holistically, experimentally and through interesting new institutional arrangements has been taken on in catchment management itself. In fact this entire scientific and management field has become deliberately antireductionist and epistemologically experimental in outlook over the past decades (Collins and Ison, 2010; Marshall et al, 2010; Watson, 2014; Watson et al, 2007). Many community experiments, including those that embrace different epistemologies and ways of working together have been trialled in the last few years [Smith et al (2015) offer a good review]. These developments, we found, made it possible for the practical domain of catchment management to connect in productive ways with the more philosophically inclined collective and intra-active collective politics discussed in this paper.
However, we still need to think about what kind of connection this might be. What we have explored is the possibility that a different way of approaching 'things' in politics might be one way of improving the conventional way of managing the lake that we described earlier in this paper. In Latour's terms, placing things centre stage and allowing for a radical interrogation of their thing-ness, and for the proliferation of their connections, was proposed as a way of disallowing Nature (with a capital 'N', or Science with a capital 'S') to take the place of politics. But could a sensibility to the philosophies of STS and posthumanism, with their emphases on the collective opening out of 'facts' and their fine-tuned attention to the ways in which all matter needs to be understood as a kind of intra-active becoming, really enhance the 'management' of Loweswater?
To answer this question let us consider the take-home points from the examples above and the differences that enacting intra-active collective politics made. Our first example discussed the encounter of the LCP with the EU WFD. Instead of taking the 'facts' of the WFD at face value, the LCP queried them: participants wondered why the innards of the directive could not be connected to more accurate data; equally they asked what its shifting timescales meant for on-the-ground efforts to achieve improvement of water quality. Above all, participants did not rely on this directive to answer all their questions: they wondered what commitments were needed from LCP actors, and which existing LCP commitments extended beyond the remit of the WFD.
Our second example, combined with Barad's ideas, offered us complementary possibilities. Here, we saw how the LCP, alert to intra-active matters, grappled with the findings of Haycock's geomorphological survey. Through recognition of the dynamic 'intra-play' of indeterminacy and determinacy in things and matter, an acknowledgement of a deep and fundamental relationality could be entertained. LCP participants came to appreciate the radically different methods and ways of thinking that Haycock had introduced, at the same time as questioning his methods, perspectives, and scales. They were both appreciative of, and troubled by, the connections he made between vast-scale gcomorphological movements and small- scale fencing efforts. They did not simply deconstruct the geomorphological 'facts' of the matter, however, but used these to think carefully about issues of geological time, causality, and the likely inevitability of the presence of algae into the future, as well as the possibilities of agency and responsibility in the here and now.
Bringing Latour's and Barad's strands of theorising together, and adhering to the simple principles and ways of apprehending reality that they support, engendered a particular kind of intra-active collective politics in Loweswatcr. This did not just imply a deconstruction of regulatory or scientific 'facts'. Nor was it simply an enhanced participatory exercise. Nor still did it constitute a politics that was improved by the simple 'bringing in' of 'things' into preexisting fora (Barad, 2007). The intra-active politics we witnessed and practised posed questions about the nature of entities and their relations (ontological questions) as well as questions about our own knowledge of them (epistemological questions). A good illustration of this can be found in our third example, where we described how farmers would occasionally insist on broadening the terms of debate within the LCP. The LCP's commitment to understanding all perspectives helped it to pose new questions in these instances: what, really, was 'the issue' that the LCP should focus on, and how should it be bounded? How was the LCP's own connection and sense of solidarity with local farmers in tension with collective efforts to definitively understand cyanobacteria and 'clean up the lake'? How might the LCP face and take forward the really big unanswerable questions concerning the apparent paradoxes of modern farming and the maintenance of the Lake District mral idyll?
There is little doubt that the practices of the LCP and the insights gained through this forum have fostered a new complex, demanding, exciting, and energised form of politics underway in Loweswater, a form of intra-active collective politics made possible by a willingness to embrace issues of epistemology and ontology. The LCP stimulated a lively and active buy-in and is held locally and even nationally to be a successful model of working together around complex environmental problems such as the diffuse pollution of land and water (Smith et al, 2015). Institutions like the EA and Defra are continuing to support the LCP (see below), no matter how intractable the issues raised seem to be. What is clear is that the forum of the LCP generated some very challenging questions: what can we do with the insight that the WFD can only ever be a heuristic for a much more intractable problem (and upward trend) of the increasing enrichment of soils and waters globally? The downhill movement of geological 'matter' held in our mountain morasses may well thwart the LCP's attempts to 'fence off' unstable sections of soil and hillside, but does that mean that it is useless to try? How does it help to recognise that the painful (and taboo) contradictions of contemporary upland hill farming are part of the story of the microscopic algae and need to be articulated and heard as such?
The inclusion of many different, often uncomfortable, strands of debate, questioning, and analysis are amongst the main achievements of the LCP. Building on the success of the Loweswater collective, Defra has funded a follow-up project designed by Loweswater residents which has allowed the local community to institute further practical initiatives (see http://melbrEakcommunities.wordpress.com/activities/loweswater-care- programme/). As an ongoing forum, it might be described as what the posthumanist scholar Braidotti called an 'experiment with intensities' (Braidotti, 2013, page 190, in Waterton and Tsouvalis, 2015). Experience and lessons from the Loweswater collective have also contributed to the design and support of new participatory forms of governance through Defra's catchment-based approach. There are encouraging signs that the actions of the collective may have had a positive impact on the water quality of the lake itself. (9) What we think is noteworthy is the commitment to interrogating, collectively, the deeply relational understanding of socioecological realities, whilst also making collective resolutions to create provisional evidence upon which actions might be based. This is what makes the LCP exciting and demanding (and perhaps even a little precarious) but also worthwhile. Intra-active collective politics is a form of politics, we suggest (despite the wariness expressed at the beginning of this section), that could be folded into processes of'adaptive catchment management', as well as other forms of environmental governance. Our hope is that the LCP's ethic of 'experimenting with intensities' will become more widespread in facing the immense socioecological challenges of today, and that the commitment to doing 'things' together, critically, but creatively, will survive the small experiment of the LCP.
Acknowledgements. This study was funded by the Joint Research Councils UK through its RELU programme as part of the project 'Understanding and Acting in Loweswater: Testing a Community Approach to Catchment Management' (2007-2010). Judith Tsouvalis would also like to thank The Leverhulme Trust for funding theoretical work that contributed to the ideas expressed in this paper. This was carried out under the research programme 'Making Science Public: Challenges and Opportunities' (RP201 l-SP-013) (2012-1017).
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(1) Science and technology studies.
(2) Latour differentiates the sciences--in the plural and in small letters--from Science--in the singular with a capital 'S'. For him, "the discourse on Science has no direct relation to the life of the sciences." He defines Science as "the politicization of the sciences through epistemology in order to render ordinary political life impotent through the threat of an incontestable nature" (2004, page 10). The sciences, on the other hand, create collective propositions with which to constitute the world (page 249).
(3) The project website evidences how the LCP worked. It contains multiple resources including minutes of meetings, research reports, and journal articles: http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fass/projects/loweswater/
(4) Comment made by a local farmer interviewed by Judith Tsouvalis, 2008.
(5)Adopted on 23 October 2000, the EU WFD is seen to be the most significant piece of European water legislation conceived to date, with legally binding objectives but with flexibility for member states as to how to achieve them.
(6) In 2005 three elements were measured to achieve less than good ecological status in Loweswater: dissolved oxygen, macrophytes, and phytoplankton (algae). The Ecological Quality Ratio, which is based on annual mean chlorophyll a (algae), was consequently calculated to be "only moderate and tending towards poor" and it was concluded that a programme of measures would be needed to restore ecological status to 'good'.
(7) From the first meetings onwards participants of the LCP began to collaborate, and some carried out their own pieces of research or brought their own forms of evidence into the forum. Considered by RELU as a major innovation of the Understanding and Acting in Loweswater project itself, a sum of money was made available within the research budget to encourage new collaborations, by lay as well as professional people, to carry out small research projects of their own design. Five small-scale studies were funded in this way, one of which was the study carried out by Haycock.
(8) Tsouvalis carried out interviews with all farmers in the Loweswater catchment as part of the RELU research (2007-2010).
(9) Professor Stephen Maberly, CEH Lancaster, personal communication, 2014.
Centre for the Study of Environmental Change, Lancaster University, Department of Sociology, Bowland North, Lancaster LAI 4YT, England; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Received 26 May 2014; in revised form 24 January 2015
Institute of Science and Society, The University of Nottingham, School of Sociology and Social Policy, University Park, Nottingham NG7 2RD, England; e-mail: Judith.Tsouvalis@nottingham.ac.uk
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|Author:||Waterton, Claire; Tsouvalis, Judith|
|Publication:||Environment and Planning D: Society and Space|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2015|
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