Project Summary

This project aims to enhance understanding of the interplay of science, culture, power and politics in international affairs through a focus on the Large-Scale Biosphere Atmosphere (LBA) experiment. The LBA is the largest program in international scientific cooperation ever focused on global change issues related to the Amazon region. It subsumes more than 120 research projects focused primarily on the Brazilian Amazon and involves some 1,700 participants, primarily from Brazil, the United States, and Europe.

Interdisciplinary in nature but centrally shaped by anthropological methods and “science studies,” the project studies the production and use of science under the LBA. A central part of the research involves empirical study of (1) competing scientific hypotheses related to the role of the Amazon in the global carbon cycle and hence in human-induced climate change, and (2) the connections, if any, between the competing scientific hypotheses, political frameworks, and social cohesions variously reflecting and transgressing territory-based boundaries.

"Our Science Their Science" is a site through which to explore ideas about the relationship between power, knowledge and territory, and to test common assumptions about the relationship between science and politics in general, and the role of science in environmental politics and decision making in Brazil and internationally. Through ethnographic methods, the project tracks links between macro and micro processes bearing on the LBA, including how social formations under the LBA are variously bound and unbound by national, transnational and geopolitical frames of meaning. This component contributes to efforts in fields such as Science and Technology Studies (STS), anthropology, geography and international relations, to identify and map links at these various scales and analyze their dynamics and their consequences for environmental politics and governance.

An important part of scientific discussions within the LBA have centered on the role of Amazonian forests in the global carbon cycle.  LBA scientists disagree whether the Amazon’s forests are an overall carbon “source” (releasing more carbon into the atmosphere than they absorb), carbon “sink” (absorbing more carbon than they release) or whether they are “carbon neutral” (absorb as much carbon as they release).

That disagreement is a central focus of this project, because it yields insight into social, political and material realities shaping the production of the scientific knowledge and the ways in which it is interpreted and used by various actors.

Disagreements on the carbon sink issue within the LBA are especially intriguing given common understandings of science as objective and universal. This is because they correlate significantly with geographical and geopolitical divisions. American scientists have tended to produce data and interpretations according to which the Amazon forest is more or less carbon neutral, whereas European scientists have predominantly produced data and interpretations suggesting that the forest is a sink. By contrast, Brazilian scientists are less unified in their positions on the issue, some believing it is a sink and others that it is a source or more or less carbon neutral. This project identifies and analyzes these lines of divisions and their consequences: Who is – (and who is not) – convinced by particular theories and experiments, on what basis and in what contexts? To what extent must the divisions among LBA scientists – including the divisions among Brazilian scientists – be understood in terms of differences in professional background, institutional structures, social networks and trust? Do the differences reflect competing geopolitical interests and perceptions related to forest conservation and international negotiations under the UNFCCC? What specific scientific, social and political processes affect the various synergies and differences within the LBA on the sink issue?

Broader questions underpinning the project include: Is policy-relevant environmental science best understood as a culturally dependent variable that takes its form and content from political and social context? If so, how is one to define what constitutes political and social context, in an international science project involving multiple countries and nationals whose identities often are shaped by social and cultural contexts both at home and abroad? How much does science matter in the perception of physical reality – and whose science counts in what contexts? The project is thus also a case through which to study how connections and inequities between the global North and South affect negotiation positions and associated authority in international scientific and environmental forums such as the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

In concordance with anthropological approaches to the study of science in society (Hess, 1992; Hess, 1997; Marcus, 1995; Martin, 1998; Marcus, 1998), and heeding urgings by non-anthropologists of the need to do so to fully understand processes of globalization and environmental governance (Adler & Haas, 1992; Jasanoff & Wynne, 1998; Jasanoff, 2001; Jasanoff & Long Martello, 2004; Yearley, 1996), this project attends not only to the construction of scientific knowledge but also to the ways in which it is used outside of “the laboratory.” An integral component of this project focuses on all important actors in Brazil with a perceived stake in science relating to the role of the Amazon in the global carbon cycle. These actors are found in a variety of institutional settings in Brazil, most centrally the federal government, local governments in the Amazon region, national research laboratories, universities, environmental NGOs and the media. Study of the reception and consumption of scientific and environmental ideas, images and knowledge in various parts of society is necessary to understand the interlinked roles of science, power and politics in international affairs that are restructuring our present world.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0242042. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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