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Anthropology Program and Dean of the College present

Measuring Futures in Expectant Times

Garbage Ecologies and Statecraft in the West Bank

Monday, December 10, 2012

Candidate for the Tenure-Track Assistant Professor in Cultural Anthropology

Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins
Columbia University

will give a talk

Measuring Futures in Expectant Times: Garbage Ecologies and Statecraft in the West Bank

This talk is a small excerpt from my current research, which focuses on the governance of garbage and of sewage, and on the circulation of Palestinian and Israeli waste in waste markets, in the post-Oslo West Bank. One effect of the emergence of environmental protection as the key “metrological regime” (Barry 2002) within which waste pollution has been managed since the mid-twentieth century has been the standardization of practices of measurement with which infrastructures to protect “the environment” from municipal waste are built. Over two years of fieldwork in the West Bank (2009-2011), I discovered that Palestinian bureaucrats, engineers and other experts who managed Palestinian garbage worked daily under the assumption that the future of a sovereign state, and the nation’s environmental survival, were both at stake in their ability to design and build infrastructures that were “ecologically sustainable” – infrastructures recognizable as such both by served communities and by closely watching Israeli and international observers. These experts therefore saw their application of internationally recognized, technical standards in measuring, designing and building waste management systems as a matter of (albeit understatedly) national, and sometimes even anti-colonial, significance. For the construction of the first Palestinian-run sanitary landfill in the West Bank, called Zahrat al-Finjan, international standards dictated, among other forms of measurement, the calculation of population growth over three to five decades into the future. Ethnographies of nuclear waste fallout (e.g. Masco 2006, Petryna 2002) have shown that state planners are required to do unprecedented imaginative labor in building waste disposal facilities that assume the institutional and territorial shape of their political communities into the unimaginably far future (e.g. 200,000 years). In the West Bank, that managing Palestinian waste necessitated the measurement of territory, population and political institutions up to thirty or fifty years into the future was, in some sense, just as imaginatively laborious for local experts who were working in a place whose territorial jurisdictions and demographics were in constant flux, deferred pending the ever-ephemeral “political solution.” Nevertheless, given the imperative to build the future state’s infrastructures today, their designs for the landfill’s garbage collection radius and population served divided objects into measurable unknowns and unmeasurable unknowns. The “fallout” from this division was the parallel, implicit distinction between “natural” population growth, which was legible within the metrological regime of environmental protection and considered measurable, and “political” population growth, which could not be reliably calculated into the building of a national system of waste management. I argue that, paradoxically, practices of “natural” population forecasting that allowed Palestinian waste managers – as well as many of the people they sought to serve – to perceive their work as national work for what would one day be an independent, environmentally sustainable state, were the same measurement practices that served to narrow, and finally reconfigure, the material limits of the (future) state in unexpected ways.


For more information, call 845-758-7215, or e-mail kunreuth@bard.edu.

Location: Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium