Dominic Boyer announces Rice’s E2I intiative and introduces Laura Nader

Posted by on Oct 25, 2012







Welcome and thank you. Before properly introducing our distinguished   guest, Prof. Laura Nader of UC-Berkeley, this afternoon, I’d like to comment on some recent good news here at Rice. As many of you already know, since the last time we gathered together for a “Cultures of Energy” lecture, Rice University’s central administration announced the broadest research initiative in its history, E2I, the Energy and Environment Initiative. E2I aims to accomplish something unusual if not unprecedented, that is, to harness all the intellectual resources of a university to address a planetary challenge. The motivation for E2I is certainly no secret: we are in the grasp of unprecedented climatic and environmental changes caused – again this is no secret — by our forms and intensity of energy use. These changes are multiplying around the world — the place where I am conducting field research right now, Oaxaca, Mexico – a place that Prof. Nader knows very well — has been inundated this year with historic levels of rainfall and flooding, so much so that traditional crops are failing, that centuries old structures are collapsing. As our last Cultures of Energy speaker, Dipesh Chakrabarty, reminded us, climate science is telling us that the fate of humanity and not only humanity depends on the habits we break and the choices we make now. It is a powerful call to action but what, specifically, can we hope to accomplish at Rice? Much remains to be determined but the first step of E2I has been a promising one. We have stated clearly that our current energy and environmental crisis cannot be adequately addressed let alone mitigated by any one academic discipline. It will require the entire university working together. But, as all of us know, such a premise brushes against every grain of how a modern research university operates. We commonly understand, experience and even enjoy the research university as a city of specialists (a city moreover with limited common space and a bad public transport system). But we less often recognize that, if I may paraphrase the philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey, that all our brilliant and important research specializations mutually entitle and backstop each other. What I mean by this is that Dominic Boyer can blithely pursue his cultural analysis of German intellectuals or wind power in Mexico only because he has colleagues like Cyrus Mody and Jack Zammito who are doing the deep historical analysis and archival research upon which his work depends and only because there are scholars in the English department like Joe Campana, Caroline Levander, Tim Morton and Alexander Regier who understand the intricacies of textuality and representation in ways that an anthropologist never will. This is to say nothing of how all of us in the human sciences rely upon the work of scientists, engineers and architects, without whom nothing about our modern lives would be the same. We all can enjoy our topical rabbit holes because we have neighbors, good neighbors actually, who shine lights into the dark places we can’t see. The problem is that our intellectual interdependence across campus and our capacity to fill in each other’s gaps and blindspots is too often ignored. This is not to deny that specialized research has much to offer the world. Obviously it does. But it is becoming clear that a city of disconnected academic specialists is a luxury we can no longer afford. We need a light rail network to create better connectivity between our academic neighborhoods. And we need, in the spirit of the French Situationists, to be willing to ride to unexpected places. Thus, we are working in E2I to cultivate new commons, to bring Rice’s brilliant humanists, scientists, social scientists, architects, engineers, and policy analysts together to help improve each other’s responses to the current crisis. However, we also very obviously need more than just faculty to connect. We need the experience and expertise of students, administrators, and alumnae. And we will partner with the many citizens, organizations and companies in the Houston area who are likewise committed to this cause. As a friend of mine in Germany once told me, “division of labor is all well and good. But when the ship is taking water, it doesn’t matter who was the cook, the navigator, the passenger, the captain. Everyone needs to grab a bucket.” So, to everyone here today I would say, spread the word: we need not only your buckets but also your brilliant ideas to help make E2I more than the sum of its parts. An initiative like this will amount to nothing without a shared sense of conviction, without imagination, and without, above all, willingness to learn and generosity of spirit.

Now I would love to say that the idea for E2I is a new one. But it isn’t. What we are doing is following in the footsteps of our illustrious speaker, Laura Nader. Listen to something she once wrote about how to engage the energy problems of our times. “The energy problem is not a technological problem. It’s a social problem. We must build technologies that recognize human frailty. If there’s one thing that social science has documented, it’s that people make mistakes. They’re going to continue to make mistakes. Build that into the technology, and accept and reject- technologies on that basis. …[But] The toughest problem will be getting professionals to look inside themselves, to see what their mind-set problems are. What is it about my anthropological training that makes me see things in a certain way? What is it about your technical training that makes you see certain things and not others? No one is comfortable exploring these questions about themselves, but it’s part of the job that has to be done.”

That sounds like something that might have been written yesterday. But Prof. Nader published that article in 1981 in Physics Today, a journal in which I would wager no anthropologist had published before her. This is little wonder. Laura Nader has always been a scholar who has laid her own grid, who has been unintimidated by unfamiliar territory and creative in her work across disciplinary boundaries. It comes as no surprise thus that her career has been filled with one brilliant first after another. She was the first woman hired to teach anthropology at UC-Berkeley (where she still teaches today), she was a founder of the field of legal anthropology, she was the first anthropologist to call for greater ethnographic study of expert groups. And, then putting her own advice into practice, Prof. Nader became the first ethnographer of energy experts, which she remarked later was the toughest field research she had ever done, more challenging than working in a remote Zapotec village in the mountains of Oaxaca, more difficult than studying conflict and conflict resolution among Shia Muslims in Southern Lebanon. She learned from her fellow experts, studying their competing worldviews and ideologies, but she also challenged them to think past carbon and nuclear fuels – in yet another original act, Prof. Nader was the first anthropologist to think seriously about what would have to change both in terms of mindsets and in terms of patterns of energy use in order for us to transition toward societies fueled by solar energy. I am sorry to say that anthropology and the human sciences are only now taking up this challenge again. Even though in “Cultures of Energy” we like to think that we are doing something very new, Laura Nader’s legacy of work over the past three decades reminds us that our contemporary conversations in energy humanities have deep roots, owing so much to seeds planted in the 1970s by Prof. Nader and her colleagues. Although the full impact of that research was unfortunately delayed for decades by a political recommitment to carbon and nuclear fuel in the 1980s, the world has, I think and hope, finally caught up to Prof. Nader. For those of you who wish to read more, I would highly recommend both her classic Energy Choices in a Democratic Society as well as her fabulous recent collection The Energy Reader. These are only 2 of her nearly 20 books, 3 documentary films and hundreds of research articles. Her work in legal anthropology on conflict resolution across cultures was and continues to be pathbreaking both for its scope and for its incisiveness. Prof. Nader was elected to the Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1991 and awarded the Law and Society Association’s highest honor, the Kalven Prize, four years later. But knowing Laura a little, I would bet that what she is most proud of is how her fierce and unapologetic commitment to both understanding and improving the world around her has inspired generations of students and colleagues at Berkeley and elsewhere. You see then why her visit to Rice could not be better timed. We look forward to her wisdom on how our work here at Rice in “Cultures of Energy” and E2I could and should proceed. Please join me in welcoming Prof. Laura Nader to Rice University.



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