Destination Anthropocene: An Interview with Amelia Moore

Destination Anthropocene: Science and Tourism in The Bahamas

By Amelia Moore, University of Rhode Island

216pp. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press §

Colin Hoag spoke with Prof. Amelia Moore about her recent book on science and tourism in The Bahamas.

 

 

Thanks for writing this wonderful book. For Engagement readers who have not yet read it, could you give us a short synopsis of the book’s content and argument?

Destination Anthropocene is a work of environmental anthropology at the intersection of science studies, tourism studies, and what we might call Anthropocene studies. It is an academic book for anthropologists, but I also wrote it for environmental scientists and travelers who are curious about the effects their well-intentioned travel has on the world. The main argument is that rather than being in conflict, the tourism industry and the natural sciences are becoming more interconnected and entangled in contemporary sustainable tourism enterprises. In tourism-dependent locations like The Bahamas, we can actually watch some aspects of the tourism industry adapting to the perceived challenges of the Anthropocene idea in real time. My book reveals that these changes are not always paradigmatic shifts from mass tourism to ecologically and socially sustainable enterprises, and in practice, greener travel brands and sustainable destinations may actually extend the inequities of neocolonial industrial capitalism by creating new kinds of valuable spaces, organisms, and ecologies that can be inequitably exploited, with real consequences for humans and other beings. The book’s examples offer an alternative story that complicates the smooth, linear narratives of the Caribbean tourism industry, international field science, and regional conservation organizations.

 

Global Change Science (GCS)—your term for the largely quantitative, interdisciplinary study of human impacts on the environment—is a central character in your book. In fact, you explain that you initially became interested in The Bahamas through participating in a GCS project funded by the National Science Foundation. Could you describe how you made the transition from that quantitative field to qualitative, interpretive anthropology, and what it tells you about the value of anthropology for understanding environmental change?

I was an undergraduate environmental biology major at Columbia University, a research institution, and so I experienced the assumptions and privileges of the global environmental change sciences first-hand. It was as an undergraduate that I had the opportunity to travel to The Bahamas as part of a multi-year, interdisciplinary, multi-institutional NSF-funded research project. I was expected to travel somewhere to apprentice with an existing project, and I was chosen to go to The Bahamas to interview local islanders about their fishing practices. I was a field technician collecting “human dimensions” data, which meant administering bioeconomic surveys to people I had never met in a place I had never been before, and this was a common practice for students and faculty in my major. It is so common in fact, that this kind of student and scholarly travel is taken for granted. It is certainly a right of passage in the ecological sciences and I have come to see that this expectation of fluid and frequent travel to intervene in the lives of others is almost considered an essential right for this field.

Despite my introduction to survey technologies and relatively rapid data collection periods (my first “field season” in The Bahamas lasted only three weeks), I was lucky enough to have two anthropological mentors who were involved in this project, Paige West and Kenneth Broad. These two scholars have shaped my work ever since, but at that early stage, they made sure I kept my own ethnographic field notebook, and they actually read excerpts from it to make sure I was doing more than just administering surveys. They impressed upon me the need to make deeper connections with the people in the settlement I found myself in. And it was in part through observing these anthropologists interact and argue with the other scientists on the project that the initial seed was planted for the story that would eventually become this book, although I couldn’t have articulated that in 2002.

It wasn’t until graduate school at UC Berkeley, where I enrolled in the anthropology program and took classes in cultural geography and environmental studies, that I was able to return to The Bahamas to consider the assemblage of actors, ideas, and technologies that made up the NSF project (still ongoing at that time). After my first few years of graduate school, working with Cori Hayden and Paul Rabinow, I had the capacity to understand that “the environment” itself is a political object and entangled process, and that quantitative methods alone cannot produce anything like an awareness of the historical contingency, power asymmetries, and dynamism inherent in the changes occurring all around and within living systems. We need ethnography for that kind of wide-angle and wide-eyed comprehension. Sadly, there is hardly any ethnographic research involved in the global change sciences, even now, and even less work that holds these sciences to any reflexive standard.

 

One of the more arresting points you make in the book relates to the affinity between science and tourism—that conservation science has become a rationale for tourism, even as tourism is the source of so much environmental destruction there. Scientific concepts and research, you say, are “technologies that have been put to work in re-creating The Bahamas as a new kind of experimental destination” (pg. 47). Could you describe how this situation has come about and what it tells us about the how science might be done better?

We are at this point where travel destinations are evolving so rapidly in large part because the tourism industry is so pervasive and wealthy, and because it is therefore incredibly creative. If your beach destination has to compete for travelers with ten thousand other beach destinations on the planet, and if travel is more accessible to more people who can go to more places than ever before, then you need to differentiate your destination from the rest. The Bahamian Ministry of Tourism has poured so many resources into destination branding, hiring marketing consultants and launching campaigns for decades, to the point where everyone I have ever met has heard of The Bahamas and many people have traveled there on vacation (or maybe their cruise ship docked there). To retain market edge, the Ministry knows that it has to double down on the sun, sand, and sea marketing packages and narratives that sell well with their base tourist demographic while simultaneously exploring new marketing and branding areas to create new travel niches for new kinds of visitors. That is where the natural sciences come in: the more that scientists learn about Bahamian environments and ecologies, and the more they promote their research, the more likely it is that the tourism industry will be able to fold that research into travel itineraries and promotional materials and call it “sustainable,” “green,” or “off-grid” tourism. Further, school field trips and scientific research travel might not feel like standard tourism to those of us who are taking those trips to learn more about the world, but for the Ministry, that kind of travel is also valuable tourism, and the tourism industry would like to see more of it.

Scientists need to understand that when they travel to a postcolonial, offshore, tourism-dependent, Caribbean island nation, they are participating in the uneven and unequal patterns of trade and exchange that have shaped the region (including ecologies and environments) since the time of Columbus. They need to understand that they can either be an unwitting part of the neocolonial redesign of these islands for the generation of wealth and privilege (including knowledge and scientific credit) for the few, or they can radically rethink their own roles in these systems of inequity. That is the great challenge for the field sciences: to break the cycle of elite expectation that scientific travel is somehow outside of or beyond the injustices of tourism and other extractive industries.

 

Early in the book, you describe three different frames through which the islands have been understood: “Isles of June,” “Ephemeral Islands,” and finally “Anthropocene Islands.” You explain that racial segregation was central to the first frame, and I wondered what legacy that may have had in the Ephemeral or Anthropocene framing. Could you describe these frames briefly and tell us more about the racial politics of tourism and environments there?

The colonial and neocolonial frames through which The Bahamas has been viewed over time are largely discursive, so of course they have real material consequences for the way people and other beings are able to exist. The “Isles of June” frame comes from the moniker Christopher Columbus supposedly gave to what would become The Bahamas. Columbus made landfall in the Americas in The Bahamas (in what is now San Salvador or Cat Island), and his accounts are full of languid natives and (sub) tropical idyll, which we now know to be totally an invention of the colonial gaze. However, this framing was subsequently adopted and popularized by British colonists and promoted during the development of the tourism industry in the 19th and 20th centuries, and it is essentially a discourse of white supremacy wrapped in the vocabulary of Paradise. Many Caribbean and Bahamian scholars are quite familiar with this discourse, because it shaped the world they know. For these scholars, the Isles of June have always been upheld by the subjugation of black and brown bodies for the express benefit of white elites. On top of this, we should also add that ecologically, the Isles of June period involved the transformation of island ecologies into manicured resort-scapes of imported palm trees, tropical flowers, exclusive enclave developments, and raked beaches.

The “Ephemeral Islands” is a frame that emerged in the late 20th century along with the dawning of a political environmental awareness in the West. This discursive frame was pushed by American field ecologists, and involved the appreciation of all things endemic and endangered. The Bahamas was valued in this frame for having unique and ecologically important environments and species in need of conservation and preservation. Here again, the sense was that knowledge and expertise about such things implicitly comes from abroad (the US or Europe and sometimes Canada), and scientific expertise is more valuable than any local knowledge. This frame was not explicitly racist, but it was implicitly segregated within the hierarchies of the American scientific community that privileged white, male researchers through educational pipelines, ingrained with the expectation that they had the appropriate credentials to go wherever they wanted to study whatever they liked because they were saving or salvaging scientifically valuable species.

I like to think that the “Anthropocene Islands” is a 21st century frame that now coexists with the other two (which are both very much alive and well, depending on your perspective). The Anthropocene Islands frame positions The Bahamas (and other small islands in the world) as being inherently vulnerable to anthropogenic global change (via biodiversity loss, sea level rise, over consumption of resources, etc.), but rather than being unique, rare, and isolated, the archipelago is now scientifically valuable because it has sites that can reflect these global changes for researchers, and notably, for visiting tourists as well. You can now travel to The Bahamas to study the way climate change impacts small island socioecological systems, or you can pay to gain a dive credential in coral restoration as a voluntourist. As with the other discursive frames, the Anthropocene Islands is just as steeped in the implicit racial divides that structure Caribbean life and the privileges of foreign travel and tourism in the region because it has emerged from those prior ways of seeing and being in the world.

My chapter about the Island Academy, “The Educational Islands,” shows how such framings structure travel to an island-based research station where science and tourism intersect. The Island Academy is built within the Anthropocene Islands frame (although no one there would put it in those terms) in order to turn its visiting students and staff into what I call Anthropocene subjects: future global “leaders” in the fight against anthropogenic change and the promotion of sustainable development. But of course these subjectivities depend on black and brown bodies to not only maintain their accommodation, but also to serve as living examples of the kinds of people who need to be “saved” from unsustainable island conditions by these future leaders. And of course this frame comes with another transformation of island ecologies, promoting permaculture, renewable energy, and self sustaining infrastructures for its visitors in a greener version of the tourist enclave.

 

One of your objects of interest is the Global Change Science concept of “biocomplexity,” which struggles to incorporate social processes into its ecological models. As you show, the concept as used by GCS researchers tends to reduce “the social” to a few prefabricated, flattened variables. It suggests that “biocomplexity” is not actually about complexity or finding nuanced ways to think about human ecologies—it multiplies variables but forbids any that would lead to surprising findings. Do I have that correct? What does biocomplexity tell us about the Anthropocene concept, another effort to draw sociality together with ecology?

There was a time at the American National Science Foundation in the late 90’s when the term “biocomplexity” was supposed to be the new “biodiversity” in terms of scientific buzzwords. This linguistic evolution was lead by the NSF Director, Rita Colwell (who I interview in the book), who wanted to promote interdisciplinary team research that was more than the enumeration of species or the static and siloed practice of overly specialized science. It was this initiative that funded the NSF project I joined as an undergraduate in 2002. Today, this research area is known at the NSF as “coupled human and natural systems” research, but it has its origins in biocomplexity. As a research ideology, biocomplexity was exciting. Colwell once said that her goal was to develop systemic models with enough coupled variables to understand planetary processes from the micro to the global scale, kind of like the equivalent of the human genome project for field ecology. This notion is part of the evolution of the global change sciences and the Anthropocene idea (Colwell likely doesn’t get enough credit for being part of this intellectual process), but therefore it is also subject to the same limitations of frame and content that the quantitative field sciences have always had when it comes to reducing what counts as sociality to preset variables. The “complexity” in biocomplexity stemmed from the expansion of variables to linked social AND ecological systems, not to any actual capacity to understand social life in a more complex fashion. So for me, the story of the biocomplexity project represents the danger of the Anthropocene idea when used in an overly simplistic and reductive way. It can be business as usual in a form that allows certain hierarchies and simplifications to colonize new places.

 

A central contradiction of the book is that the positioning The Bahamas as an Anthropocene research hotspot will lead to its environmental destruction. I couldn’t help but wonder: Is this a contradiction of capitalism, or of something else? For example, in Chapter 3 (“Sea of Green”) you describe a consultant at a tourism industry conference who positions the transition to a carbon-neutral industry as a business opportunity, creating “new forms of market expertise, new research agendas, and new regional distinctions based on the inevitability of global, regional, and local planetary change” (pg. 93). This will sound rather familiar to readers from the USA, who are often presented with consumer opportunities to fight environmental change.

Yes, sustainable tourism is a contradiction of capitalism. That should not be surprising to anybody at this point, and it is by no means a theoretical innovation!  And yet, most of the scientists and tourism practitioners I work with have never thought about the possibility that they may not be able to design their way into a guilt-free tourism industry. I wrote that chapter for them.

 

I was really interested by the specific problems and opportunities for Global Change Scientists or by anthropologists in conducting research in an island setting—but also by the way it might contradict the perspectives of tourists. That is, islands are imagined as ideal laboratory settings for seeing environmental and social processes unfold because they are allegedly “unpolluted” by outside influence. In the minds of tourists and students at the Island Academy, however, they are sites of forgetting. Is there a relationship between these imaginaries and what might its origin be?

I teach an Island Studies course, and every year I am amazed anew by the ways islands have been made to do so much work to justify just about anything and everything for the powerful. Islands are the original isolated tabula rasa (if you believe Columbus), and therefore they are key sites of creative innovation, generative production, and old fashioned discovery and invention that is ALL based on silencing, forgetting, lies, and erasure. Of course I am biased, but for me, island studies can shine a bright light on the contradictions, hypocrisies, and down right thievery that comes with colonial, capitalist, and scientific expansion over time and in the present. Even (especially?) the smallest islands are great examples of this. I love how scholars like Michel-Rolph Truillot and Epeli Hau’Ofa make this so abundantly clear in the Caribbean and the Pacific, and how scholars like Ian Strachan, Nicolette Bethel, and Angelique Nixon make this so clear in The Bahamas.

 

Have the research and tourism trajectories changed since Hurricane Dorian in 2019, which devastated so much of Abaco and other islands in The Bahamas?

Well, now we are dealing with COVID-19, which only exacerbates the destruction of the last five years of the most intense hurricanes in the Caribbean. So no one is traveling to The Bahamas at the moment at all. I am writing this in early May of 2020, when I was supposed to be in The Bahamas myself, and the country is totally shut down. Dorian hit Abaco in September of 2019, so there was only six months between that category 5+ storm and the shut down caused by the global pandemic. You can imagine the stress many islanders are feeling. The future is totally uncertain, but the fallout will be huge for the tourism industry, and I fear that there will be more research in the future that still seeks to use The Bahamas as a laboratory setting to study the effects of disaster rather than to conduct collaborative research with Bahamians to ameliorate the effects of these synchronous catastrophes. I also fear that the major tourism venues will be up and running again as soon as possible—the mega resorts and exclusive enclaves that are owned by foreign entities—but that those entities will use the pandemic as an excuse to claw back salaries and benefits that were hard won by Bahamians in the past. In terms of alliances that may be forged between science and tourism as a result of these disasters, I know it will happen (there was already coral restoration voluntourist travel sponsored by AirBnB promoted in the US as a response to Dorian before the pandemic), but I don’t yet know what shape it will take. Stay tuned.

 

Where do you see your work heading now that this project has drawn to a close?

I will always work in The Bahamas as long as they will have me. My current projects are much more collaborative, and I don’t think I want to do the lone anthropologist thing anymore. Instead I would rather work with Bahamian colleagues on research that matters in the country, following events like Hurricane Dorian, the COVID-19 pandemic, and other Anthropocene events in ways that let me practice what I preach.

And since I finished the research needed to complete the book, I have also started to work with colleagues in Indonesia on an island-based coral restoration project there, following similar threads except working much more collaboratively and with tourism farther in the background. I have also started working with regional collaborators in the state of Rhode Island, USA, on an exhibit project concerning Native and African American histories and practices of public forgetting on Block Island. All of this new work also revolves around islands, and it is also firmly ethnographic, but it is a joy to join forces with others to make sure that the work has more immediate meaning. I don’t know when I will write another book, but when I ever do I think it will be less of a cautionary tale (Destination Anthropocene is certainly one of those) and more of a story of hope and resurgence. Time will tell.

 

Thanks for this important book, Amelia. And, thanks for taking the time for this interview.


Amelia Moore is an associate professor of Marine Affairs (as of July 2020) at the University of Rhode Island. She is a sociocultural anthropologist with current research projects in The Bahamas, Indonesia, and Rhode Island.