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Environments seem to matter in many ways, as resources, as constraints, as enablers, and in complex ambivalence and entanglements. But how do they come to matter? Is “the environment” merely a cosmic signifier, an issue of semiotics? I take the stance that environments have been mattering for humans all along. A universalising claim; but environments, and the use of specific environmental matters, matter even to shape the string that forms carrier bags, for herbs and for stories. For environmental STS—an STS that engages with environmental reality-making—in this decade, it should be quite straight forward to invite environments as mattering materially as well as in unruly ways into our storytelling. Gwen Ottinger’s (2013) as well as Candis Callison’s (2014) monographs may superficially generate some optimism. Ottinger leads the reader into the midst of petrol capitalism which Stengers (2015), alongside many others, struggles with. Ottinger follows and troubles actors who “have to” green capitalism and who may not feel much troubled by it.
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How Do Environments Come to Matter?
Ingmar Lippert
To cite this article: Ingmar Lippert (2018) How Do Environments Come to Matter?, Science as
Culture, 27:2, 265-275, DOI: 10.1080/09505431.2017.1398225
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How Do Environments Come to Matter?
Ingmar Lippert
Technologies in Practice Research Group, IT University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark;
Bureau for Troubles Post-Natural Histories and Futures, Leibniz Institute for Evolution and
Biodiversity Science/Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin, Germany
Refining Expertise: How Responsible Engineers Subvert Environmental Justice
Challenges, by G. Ottinger, New York and London: New York University Press,
2013, 221 pp.
How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts, by C. Callison,
Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014, 316 pp.
Environments seem to matter in many ways, as resources, as constraints, as
enablers, and in complex ambivalence and entanglements. But how do they
come to matter? Is the environmentmerely a cosmic signifier, an issue of
semiotics? Contesting whether and how environments matter has been going
on all along, including not least in Carsons(1962)Silent Spring, which is a
popular cultural reference point, and in the seemingly quite forgotten The Con-
dition of the Working Class in England (1969) by Friedrich Engels (see Clark and
Foster, 2006). A reference to Trumps early 2017 moves towards dismantling the
Environmental Protection Agency serves then to underline the ongoingness of
contesting natures, environments and how they matter.
I take the stance that environments have been mattering for humans all along.
A universalising claim; but environments, and the use of specific environmental
matters, matter even to shape the string that forms carrier bags, for herbs and for
stories. Academic seeds, too, require environments in which they can travel, books
and logistic giants, or tablet computers and electricity infrastructures implicating
environmental struggles over electronic waste, emissions from Amazon delivery,
etc. At the same time these environments shape what they contain, reconfigure its
internal relations and reality effects. That and how environments matter is not
merely an environmentalist issue; James Camerons 2009 blockbuster Avatar
tells so, too. To make environments matter not only materially but also politically
we may not even need stories containing white male heroes, so vividly figured in
Ursula Le GuinsThe Word for World is Forest (1972/2010). Politically struggling
over natures and environments, I read Staying with the Trouble by Haraway
© 2017 Process Press
VOL. 27, NO. 2, 265275
(2016) as indicating how her earlier work can be drawn on to trouble stories of the
hero, Anthropos, as the centre or even as the singular focus of environmental
storytelling. The environment is not merely about humans and their meaning-
making. From a different vantage point, Latours(2004a)Politics of Nature under-
mines, too, the possibility to think nature and society as intrinsically apart; and
Noortje Marres traces publics, material mattering and environments in her
Material Participation (2012). The last two years crystallised HarawaysChthulu-
cene, an unruly Gaia by Stengers (2015), and Anna L. Tsings analysis On the Possi-
bility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2015), which I project into this analytical space of
environmental STS. Here we encounter calls to study capitalism without assum-
ing progress and profit, calls to engage with the intrusion of Gaia. My reference to
Gaia foregrounds environmental reality as not subject to human mastery but as an
effect of the located interactions between organic and inorganic agents across the
In short, for environmental STS an STS that engages with environ-
mental reality-making in this decade, it should be quite straight forward to
invite environments as mattering materially as well as in unruly ways into our
Considering this public conversation and these well-articulated calls when
encountering Ottingers(2013)aswellasCallisons(2014)monographsmay
superficially generate some optimism. Ottinger leads the reader into the midst
of petrol capitalism which Stengers (2015), alongside many others, struggles
with. Ottinger follows and troubles actors who have togreen capitalism and
who may not feel much troubled by it. Neither appear to be troubled those
actors followed by Callison Arctic indigenous representatives, corporate social
responsibility (CSR) agents, American evangelical Christians, science journalists
as well as science and science policy experts. With her study, it seems the
reader learns about a capitalism in which profit and progress do not matter,
indeed, where actors seem to seek collaborative survival(Tsing, 2015)whilst
facing climate change.
Both monographs engage with well-intentioned actors who engage with the
effects of emissions, and these books address how emissions (greenhouse
gases and others) affect groups differently: how US-American actors or commu-
nities translate environments into their life- or work-worlds. Given that neither
of these books share much of the vocabulary of Haraway, Tsing, or Stengers, it
seems apt to engage with the booksown phrases. Borrowing Callisons phrasing,
I turn to considering how environments come to matterdifferently in Ottin-
gers and Callisons approaches. As I will suggest, a key question in this consider-
ation is how the matter of environments matters, an issue significant to whether
climate change is about an intruding Gaia or about the play of signifiers in a
cosmic force field(Haraway, 1988, p. 577).
I shall argue that Ottingers and Callisons approaches are strikingly, though
very implicitly, different. To develop this argument, I first present the books and
discuss how environments come to matter in their accounts. Second, I compare
how their different takes on mattering problematise a shared core subject of their
books the discourse of public understanding of science (PUS). In closing, I turn
to how their alternative analytics generate different understandings of environ-
mental agents.
Situated Tactics and Strategies in Neo liberal Matterings of the
Refining Expertise is an ethnography of the interactions within and between oil
refinery environmental agents (engineers, scientists and managers) and the com-
munities neighbouring the refinery industrial sites. Ottinger takes the reader to
two towns near New Orleans (Louisiana), New Sarpy and Norco. In her account,
she comparatively analyses how the impact of the refineries on the neighbouring
communities have been contested and negotiated. Of immediate STS interest in
this analysis are her concern with industry scientists, environmental technology,
and the effects on health and environment of modern fossil technology on the
one hand, and on the other hand with neighbourhood community members
knowledge of, and sensory engagement with, their environment and their own
bodies, as well as Ottingers interest in citizen science and activism.
At the centre, I note her question How did refinery scientists and engineers
reestablish themselves as the legitimate, credible sources of technical infor-
mation?(p. 22). It is the re-establishment aspect that turns her book into an
exciting read: she sets out from a situation in which neighbourhood activists
managed to use buckets with samples of air as well as their own bodies to effec-
tively challenge refinery knowledge and management. Yet, the story turns, as the
neighbourhoods eventually agree to compromises with industry that deny recog-
nising non-expertpollution and health knowledges. Ottingers analysis argues
that we can aptly understand this turn by locating petrochemical industry scien-
tists and engineers in a neoliberal terrainthat is both context and resource for
the corporate agents. Within this terrain, she shows, they are able to silence
neighbourscritique or translate critique into discursive openings within
which they can perform expertise, allowing the corporate agents to gain,
rather than lose, authority in the interaction with neighbours, making environ-
mental contamination more and democratic participation less likely.
In my reading of Refining Expertise, then, environments come to matter in
always specific material-discursive configurations of human bodies, words,
material devices, and organisations. Her analysis accounts for diverse and het-
erogeneous configurations of environments. To illustrate this, consider the
matter of a bucket, a bag of air (pollution from Norco) travelling alongside an
activist to a United Nations conference on Climate Change, entangled on the
one hand with a Shell Chemical presentation and on the other hand with spon-
soring by the criticalNGO Corporate Watch
(pp. 1214). Simultaneously, her
analysis engages with material-discursive formations like a dialoguebetween
industry and town communities that frames state authorities not as regulators
but as facilitators between partners, staged as equals, and in which neutral
scientific reports are allowed to inform community whilst engaged scientists
are excluded.
Ottingers implicit sensibility to both, the materiality and semiosis, lets the
reader develop a nuanced understanding of the limitations of the practice of
CSR and of corporate commitments to sustainable development: the play and
struggle with words of greening is significantly confined by the specific relations
between meaning-making and, e.g. human bodies (which sense environments),
machinic sensors, timing and placing the latter, bits of dirt, the characteristics of
air and air-borne substances, the physical layout of meeting rooms, and the
inclusion and exclusion of particular embodied people into discourse and
meeting rooms. In this embodied and material analytics, meaning does not
appear as relative but as an effect of, what John Law called, heterogeneous engin-
eering. As I read it, Refining Expertise, deals with the enrolment of discursive,
institutional and material resources in situated tactics and strategies.
Making Climate Change Mean Something (Different)
How Climate Change Comes to Matter, in contrast, takes the reader to five discursive
expert communities Arctic indigenous representatives, CSR actors, evangelical
Christians, science journalists as well as science (and science policy) experts. In
relation to each of these communities, Callison sets out with two questions: (a)
how these communities relate to climate science and climate change as a fact and
(b) how they attempt to make climate change more(2) than a fact, rendering
the fact meaningful for their discursive constituencies, seeking to make the consti-
tuencies care for climate change. Her notion of matterreferences this second
question: she is interested in how these communities (attempt to) achieve that
their constituencies regard climate change as relevant to individually and collec-
tively engage with. Mattering, in this study, is analysed with respect to
meaning-making, semiosis.
Thus, the monograph poses the question of how groups come to recognise
the need to address climate change from their own ethical and moral reference
points and establish other logics and baselines that come alongside scientific evi-
dence(p. 32). The intended STS contribution of Callisons study is to clarify
that it is not more information that is needed for public engagement with
complex scientific issues like climate change, but that climate change infor-
mation needs to be linked to what people already care about.
Callison treats these expert communities to a large degree in isolation from
each other, each in a separate chapter. Her methodology is enriched, however,
by letting each ethnographic experience with a respective group inform her sen-
sibilities when analysing all the five communities. Two communities break the
isolating pattern: (a) climate change scientists and experts offer factual reference
points across the complete book; (b) and (science) journalists and their trans-
lations of climate change are relevant to her engagement with all the commu-
nities. In my reading, it is with respect to the latter group that the book may
establish its most significant contribution. By studying how climate change
media coverage emerges, how it is contested and how it comforts or irritates
communities, How Climate Change Comes to Matter offers scholars interested
in media translations of climate change a helpful treatment of the relations
between science, media, journalists, traditional norms of how the latter ought
to relate to science and reality (and challenges to these norms), the shifting econ-
omic and technical infrastructures of media, as well as the content shaping and
shaped by these relations.
With respect to journalism, in short, I would like to clarify that whilst the
backbone of her analysis of all the five communities can be read as a semiotic
relativist constructivism, the latter is most nuanced and questioned in the ana-
lytic thread of rethinking climate change media coverage and actors throughout
the book. For the other discursive communities and their constituencies, Calli-
sons methodological choice generates relevant and interesting accounts of how
these communities imagine affecting and influencing their constituencies
meaning-making by translating climate change facts into language that is com-
patible with the constituencies (as understood by the respective community).
Her accounts of those communities that I were not familiar with were of
general interest to me; effectively, these accounts introduced me to the discursive
play which these communities invest in. The books wider contribution is thus to
set out the imaginaries of its five communities.
However, How Climate Change Comes to Matters introductions to the dis-
courses within which a community performs itself (i.e. the patterns of how
they talk and write about how they care and instil care about climate change
in their constituencies), are not sufficient to engaging with the troubles of
how the practices (of care) imagined in these discourses actually and materially
Other than exclusively valuing the specific analyses of these communities
and their discourses, readers might ask which insights the comparison generates.
In that respect, a book section that scrutinises how some of these discourses
meet, how they constrain or enable each other, and how their comparison
helps to nuance relativist analytics, seems to be missing.
Versions of Mattering Matter in Analysing Environments
Reading these two books alongside each other foregrounds the difference
between concepts of matter. Refining Expertise presents an analysis that I read
in terms of matter (even though Ottinger is not emphasising that concept);
and the analysis points to both the material and the semiotic struggles over
environments. In contrast, How Climate Change Comes to Matter uses the
notion of matter to frame an analysis exclusively of semiotic meaning-making
without systematically scrutinising the material frictions in the dynamics of dis-
course. Reading these two monographs as part of STS, then, underlines that STS
does not operate with a unified concept of matter.
As I am framing this review in terms of how do environments come to
matter?I need to acknowledge my intuitive take on the concept. My reading
is shaped by a concept of matter-ing that is generative of analyses of both
meaning-making as well as the material processes involved in the socio-technical
shaping of non-antecedent realities. With Law (2004) I am sensitised to consider
the move in STS from analytics of matters of factto matters of concern
(Latour, 2004b); from the stability of isolated things to things in dynamic
relations, as ongoing open process[es] of mattering(Barad, 2003, p. 817);
from the ontology of things as a question of armchair definitions to their enact-
ment, ontological politics(Mol, 2002). I cannot ignore that my investment in
such a sensibility for studying environmental matters (e.g. Lippert, 2015) shapes
my reading of Ottingers and Callisons work.
Interestingly, Ottinger does not centrally refer to this kind of literature for her
approach. Central seems to be an inspiration by Brian Wynnes work on Cum-
brian Sheep farmers and soil (see below). Still, she also draws on Bruno Latour
(Latour and Woolgar, 1986; Latour, 1987) and Suchman (2000). Her central
attention to the buckets seems to be shaped by her fieldwork vantage point,
working as an environmental monitoring practitioner on monitoring techniques
and developing tools for interpreting bucket results(p. 191:n34).
Quite differently, Callison references some of the analytics in the close context
I just framed as matter-ing as core to her approach: she relates to Latours(1987,
2004a,2004b; Latour and Woolgar, 1986) and Haraways work (1989,1991,
2006). However, I cannot recognise how her approach is compatible with the
attention to matter-ing and material semiotics that characterises Latours and
Haraways analyses. Despite the references into the conversations associated
with matter-ing, Callisons concept of matter resonates more with a version of
social constructivist analytics associated with Berger and Luckman, i.e. the
social construction of the social (1966). This discussion provokes a gentle
warning: mattermay be a buzzword by now, but it is not always clear how
that concept is used.
PUS: Problematised, Understood, Stabilised?
Having argued for the existence of quite different analytical approaches of
attending to matter, I wonder how these two booksalternative analytics
engage a shared central issue, which both authors explicitly foreground: the cri-
tique of the discourse of PUS. Both books approach their problematisation of
PUS by drawing on the body of work authored by, or associated with, Irwin
and Wynne (1996). Callison and Ottinger use this work to trouble the very
emphasis of the PUS formulation that suggests that publics matter to science
merely as receivers of knowledge that the public needs to understand. Instead,
both books continue a line of STS investigations that analyse how science does
not necessarily offer a homogenous and neutral body of facts ready for public
understanding. Callison and Ottinger take Irwin and WynnesMisunderstand-
ing Science? into different directions however.
Callison emphasises that science is embedded in society, incorporating a
range of commitments and assumptions, leading to quite different understand-
ings of climate change in different scientific fields. It follows that the five com-
munities, which Callison studied, offer simply cases of yet further different
understandings of the natural world, shaped by the specific commitments and
assumptions of their specific discourses and human constituencies. Ottinger,
in contrast, highlights that citizens are involved in the production of scientific
knowledge, questioning the ascription of authority to scientists and calling for
the democratisation of science. Accordingly, Ottingers study analyses how
various actors around the two petrochemical sites have been included and
excluded in shaping what counted as knowledge of pollution and health. This
indicates how Callisons and Ottingers analytical paths diverge.
Ottinger foreshadows her story by reading Wynnes study of sheep and
nuclear contamination (1996). In this reading, the material difference between
soil types matters for what (more or less contaminated) substances are left on
the ground, available for sheep to graze. Ottingers analysis of buckets follows
this trajectory of engaging how materiality is involved in knowledge-making.
Actors equipped with buckets produce a different knowledge than actors
without buckets. The buckets and their samples are potent objects that must
be accounted for, interfering in industry science stories (p. 14).
She tells a story of how a fenceline community inhabitant presents an indus-
try speaker in a public discussion with a bucket sample of air pollution to which
the speaker reacts by asking Can I breath it?(p. 13), forcing the industry actor
to recognise the concern over pollution and health outside of industry science
registers. The community activist made environments come to matter, then,
through a material con-figuration of knowledge-making. This conceptual
version of matter, thus, allows to develop a critique of PUS that foregrounds citi-
zens as not only intellectually involved, but as also materially interfering in and
contributing to scientific contestation and knowledge-making.
On the other hand, Callisons book is significantly shaped by her reading of
Jasanoffs concept of civic epistemology as presented in Designs on Nature
(2005). Key here is Jasanoffs analysis of the different engagements with biotech-
nology in the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany. Callison uses
this to suggest that scientific evidence is differently weighted in different cultural
contexts. This allows her to recognise PUSimaginary of a correct understanding
of science, followed by investigating how different discourse communities
account differently for scientific facts. She finds that her five groups entertain
different imaginaries of climate change and how climate change matters. For
example, she analyses a climate scientists take on how reporters should
approach climate change; this involves that the reporters do their homework,
requiring the reporter to engage with, inter alia,scientific methods, processes,
and conclusions, as much as with climate politics (p. 83).
Yet, Callison does not trouble any of these, effectively reproducing PUSima-
ginary of climate change facts. In contrast, she axiomatically troubles the
assumption that climate change facts need to challenge these constituencies
moral and ethical orders by positing that it is central to linking [climate
change] to what people already care about(p. 20), rendering her analysis pol-
itically conservative in two ways: by, first, accepting the scientific account of
factual reality and, second, accepting the five communitiesmoral and ethical
Humans Make Environments Matter, Too
The two books centrally, but implicitly, also analyse the role of human agents in
making environments matter. I read Callisons analysis as portraying discourse
workers: the experts frame themselves as agents for environmental change,
which they attempt to achieve by translating climate change into the discursive
terrain of their constituencies. Success here depends on identifying the resources
that the respective discourses provide and enrolling these strategically. Perform-
ing climate change as mattering, then, likens a play of words in which the guar-
antee to success is linking climate change to the respective constituencies
ontologies (imaginaries of what is), such as linking climate change to care for
the creation of god, or to care for profit-making in the naturalised form of
markets. Discourse workers are constrained only by semiotics. Performing
greenness then seems like a discursive fad, reminding me of Finemans(2001)
analysis of corporate greening as fashion and mere management lingo.
In Ottingers story, human agents take part in contesting natures (reminding
me of Macnaghten and Urrys(1998) constructivist Contested Natures). By ana-
lysing the different discursive and material strategies of fenceline community
activists and corporate environmental engineers, managers and scientists, her
book foregrounds the friction between neo liberal discursive repertoire and dis-
courses that crystallise between, e.g. health concerns, environmental justice and
racism. As in Tsings(2005) analysis, friction is not merely semantic but also
material and historical. Both, working for and against neo liberalising society-
nature relationships, appear as troubled labour (although the activists are not
necessarily paid for their work).
Whilst Ottinger offers us some of the life
stories, and even multigenerational histories, of fenceline community inhabi-
tants, the corporate adversaries as human actors are less historically and socio-
logically fleshed out. This gap might be partially filled by reading Ottingers book
together with Jamisons recent take on the making of green engineers (2013; and
see note 3 for further relevant literature).
What Does Matter?
Where Ottinger helps us understand the conflictual characteristics of making
environments matter and the confrontation with the dynamics of neo liberal
environmentalism ecological modernist discourse, Callison shows that eco-
logical modernisation is not translated to all discourse constituencies and that
a range of discursively successful environmentalisms exists. I am excited about
these additions to environmental STS, helping to problematise analytically
naive understandings of ecological modernisation as self-evident. Yet, where
Callison leaves untouched the ontologies of what climate change is and how
these climate changes are response-able (Haraway, 1988,2016) to scientific
understandings, let alone to Gaia or terra, Ottingers conclusion brings me
back to Stengersbarbarism: the oil industry thrives, health and lives are at
stake. Whilst engaging with a third nature, that which lives despite capitalism
(Tsing, 2015), may lead us into beautiful multispecies matterings and becom-
ings, even kin-making (Haraway, 2016), Ottingers and Callisons work high-
lights the empirical field of attempts to manage Gaia.
STS analyses of practices in this field need to go beyond tracing the play of
signifiers in environmental meaning-making. I suggest we could read Ottingers
book as a relevant generative gesture towards studying the material and semiotic
troubles of neo liberal environmentalism but approach Callisons book as a trou-
bling reminder: merely studying yet other semantic innovations about how a
community should care about the environment is inadequate to understand
environmental matters. We need explorations of how environmental matters
are reconfigured in the material and semiotic practices of eco-modernist
techno-fixes, managerial, and policy technologies. How are different matters
implicated and transformed in making environments matter?
1. Gaiareferences the hypothesis of the self-regulating and interrelating living and dying
organisms as shaping the environment on a planetary scale, sustaining the possibility
of life on a precarious planet earth (see Lovelock and Margulis, 1974), in which
humans cannot be expected to master these planetary processes, but are merely one
amongst many organisms shaping their environments. The decline and extinction
of species is part of sustaining the life of others; and human populations are well at
risk of the collapse of their ecological niches.
2. Here probably referring to the US-American, rather than the British, NGO Corporate
3. In my case, I am most familiar with the discourse of CSR engagement with climate
change. With respect to this discourses imaginary of sustainability accounting and
the Global Reporting Initiative, readers who seek to go beyond comprehending the
internal logic of this hegemonic discourse might want to engage with critical and/or
empirical studies of the constraints in this field (e.g. Moneva et al., 2006; Levy et al.,
2010) or of how such carbon accounting, reporting, and management supposedly
informed by these reports works in situated and material practice (e.g. Lippert, 2015;
Vesty et al., 2015).
4. Although Ottinger does not mention it, her analysis of neoliberalism and the environ-
ment may take part in the critical engagement with ecological modernisation. With
respect to agents of ecological modernisation (as corporate environmental agents
may well be analysed), I read her work as going well beyond the critical semantic ana-
lyses by Fineman and as linking to recent conversations about environmental manage-
ment as situated practice (Lippert et al., 2015) and the agents involved in contesting,
configuring and maintaining environmental infrastructures (Blok et al., 2016).
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During the past decade, skepticism about climate change has frustrated those seeking to engage broad publics and motivate them to take action on the issue. In this innovative ethnography, Candis Callison examines the initiatives of social and professional groups as they encourage diverse American publics to care about climate change. She explores the efforts of science journalists, scientists who have become expert voices for and about climate change, American evangelicals, Indigenous leaders, and advocates for corporate social responsibility. The disparate efforts of these groups illuminate the challenge of maintaining fidelity to scientific facts while transforming them into ethical and moral calls to action. Callison investigates the different vernaculars through which we understand and articulate our worlds, as well as the nuanced and pluralistic understandings of climate change evident in different forms of advocacy. As she demonstrates, climate change offers an opportunity to look deeply at how issues and problems that begin in a scientific context come to matter to wide publics, and to rethink emerging interactions among different kinds of knowledge and experience, evolving media landscapes, and claims to authority and expertise.
"An important, controversial account ... of the way in which man's use of poisons to control insect pests and unwanted vegetation is changing the balance of nature." Booklist.
This book develops a fresh perspective on everyday forms of engagement, one that foregrounds the role of objects, technologies and settings in democracy. Examining a range of devices, from smart meters to eco-homes, the book sets out new concepts and methods for analyzing the relations between participation, innovation and the environment.
"An intriguing and impressive account of corporate social responsibility-and neoliberalism writ large-on the ground, in action, in chemical plant communities in Louisiana... Ottinger effectively [illustrates] how, in complex, culturally saturated ways, corporate commitment to `responsible care' has created critical challenges for environmental activism and justice." -Kim Fortun, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Residents of a small Louisiana town were sure that the oil refinery next door was making them sick. As part of a campaign demanding relocation away from the refinery, they collected scientific data to prove it. Their campaign ended with a settlement agreement that addressed many of their grievances-but not concerns about their health. Yet, instead of continuing to collect data, residents began to let refinery scientists' assertions that their operations did not harm them stand without challenge. What makes a community move so suddenly from actively challenging to apparently accepting experts' authority? Refining Expertise argues that the answer rests in the way that refinery scientists and engineers defined themselves as experts. Rather than claiming to be infallible, they began to portray themselves as responsible. This work drives home the need for both activists and politically engaged scholars to reconfigure their own activities in response, in order to advance community health and robust scientific knowledge about it.