Intimate Activism: An Ethnography of Ethical Striving on a Wounded Planet

In my post-doctoral research, I explore practices of reforming oneself and society amidst planetary injury in urban Germany. I analyse how mounting environmental crises – as sustained experience and dystopian vision – are transforming everyday decision-making and how ethical striving is being repositioned as a political act aimed toward planetary survival. The project turns to unorthodox political activists and urban gardeners, tracing new practices and imaginations of societal reform, transformation, and well-being that use selves and bodies as mediums of change and articulate novel concepts of responsibility and freedom in more-than-human worlds. The project contributes to the fields of environmental anthropology and the anthropology of ethics by theorizing everyday conduct and intimate forms of activism that seek to achieve global transformations. This research addresses questions of futurity, ecological care, improvement, and techniques of the self.

Alongside demands for concerted action at the level of governments, corporations, and large institutions, differently situated actors increasingly also call for shifts in everyday behaviour in order to bring about the socioecological transformations that are needed to mitigate or adapt to global warming and biodiversity implosion. On one end of the spectrum, companies market products appealing to greener habits and politicians now frequently advocate what appear to be sustainable choices. On the other end, individuals seek to align everyday practices and imaginations with notions of planetary care, striving for least bad futures. This project analyses how concerned citizens in contemporary Germany move between both ends of this spectrum. Climate activists gathering under the banner of Fridays for Future or Extinction Rebellion, for instance, frequently reach beyond public action, discovering intimate desires, needs, and tastes as sites of reform and political action. The project builds on the legacies of feminist and anti-racist struggles, which have revealed the private as political; but it inserts the intimate into ecological entanglements and extended temporal and spatial horizons. The burgeoning practice of urban gardening is similarly driven by ethical striving. In addition to concerns for diversity or the politics of space, gardening is also a site of self-cultivation within multispecies entanglements and amidst societal constraints.

Following preliminary research, I will commence fieldwork among climate activists and urban gardeners in January 2021. I will explore how care of self and care of the planet coalesce in tension amidst the socio-material constraints of late capitalism.

Ethical striving on a wounded planet is mired in tensions. On one level, it straddles the extension of markets through the language of pro-green consumption and the radical rethinking of selfhood in a world marked by runaway growth. On another level, this figuration of ethical striving oscillates between control and care. The fashioning of selves has long been studied as a strategy of (neo)liberal governance, one that mobilizes internalized monitoring within a framework of endless rounds of self-improvement. Similarly, ethical striving also routinely involves working on oneself in order to attain virtue or freedom. This project develops the scope of the anthropology of ethics by theorizing the immersion of ethical striving within more-than-human collectives and concerns. My ethnographic exploration of aspiring for least bad futures also contributes to debates on time, aspirations, and volatile utopias.

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