Collegium Helveticum
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Workshop

Climate Crisis and the Humanities
With Nayanika Mathur

Informations

Venue & accessibility info: Rudolf Wolf Room, Collegium Helveticum

This is a public event. If you would like to attend the workshop, please contact Silvia Rodriguez.

Anthropologist Nayanika Mathur, who co-leads the network Climate Crisis Thinking in the Humanities and Social Sciences  at the University of Oxford (UK), will talk about her latest book Crooked Cats: Beastly Encounters in the Anthropocene (University of Chicago Press, 2023). Mathur illuminates in her book the Anthropocene in three critical ways: as method, as a way of reframing human-nonhuman relations on the planet, and as a political tool indicating the urgency of academic engagement in times of climate crisis.

Subsequently, early-career scholars working on topics related to Mathur’s research have the opportunity to present and discuss their work in progress.

Program

14:15

Crooked Cats: Beastly Encounters in the Anthropocene
Book Talk with Nayanika Mathur

Nayanika Mathur
University of Oxford, UK

15:45

Coffee break

16:00

Work in Progress Presentation

Aquatic Rodents in Switzerland
Of Beavers, Muskrats, and Nutrias: The Making of ‚Invasive Species‘ in Swiss Bioconstitutionalism

Camille Schneiter 
University of Zurich, CH

Extended Urbanization and Urban-Wild Enmeshment
Urban Leopards and the Unmaking of Legal Territory in the Northern Aravalli Region

Nitin Bathla 
ETH Zurich, CH

From Coffee to Eucalyptus Plantation Aesthetics
The Longue-Durée of Soil Exploitation in Southeastern Brazil

Denise Bertschi 
École Polytechnique Fédérale Lausanne, CH
LAPIS Arts of Sciences Laboratory

17:30

Closing

Abstracts

Crooked Cats: Beastly Encounters in the Anthropocene

Nayanika Mathur
Professor of Anthropology and South Asian Studies
University of Oxford, UK
 
Big cats—tigers, leopards, and lions—that make prey of humans are commonly known as “man-eaters.” Anthropologist Nayanika Mathur reconceptualizes them as cats that have gone off the straight path to become “crooked.” Building upon fifteen years of research in India, this groundbreaking work moves beyond both colonial and conservationist accounts to place crooked cats at the center of the question of how we are to comprehend a planet in crisis.

There are many theories on why and how a big cat comes to prey on humans, with the ecological collapse emerging as a central explanatory factor. Yet, uncertainty over the precise cause of crookedness persists. Crooked Cats explores in vivid detail the many lived complexities that arise from this absence of certain knowledge to offer startling new insights into both the governance of nonhuman animals and their intimate entanglements with humans. Through creative ethnographic storytelling, Crooked Cats illuminates the Anthropocene in three critical ways: as method, as a way of reframing human-nonhuman relations on the planet, and as a political tool indicating the urgency of academic engagement. Weaving together “beastly tales” spun from encounters with big cats, Mathur deepens our understanding of the causes, consequences, and conceptualization of the climate crisis. 

Aquatic Rodents in Switzerland
Of Beavers, Muskrats, and Nutrias: The Making of ‚Invasive Species‘ in Swiss Bioconstitutionalism

Camille Schneiter
SNF Doctoral Student
University of Zurich, CH

By contrasting the very different view and treatment of very similar aquatic rodents (beavers on the one hand and muskrats and nutrias on the other) by the Swiss institutions of science and law, I illustrate the bioconstitutional formation of “invasive species” and “neobiota” in Switzerland. In contemporary Swiss law and science, “invasive species” are the (potentially) damaging subset of “neobiota:” living beings introduced into Switzerland through human agency after 1492. Swiss beavers, muskrats, and nutrias meet all these criteria. Yet, beavers are legally protected and even supported while muskrats and nutrias are eradicated and controlled. 

Historically, the bioconstitutional formation of “invasive species” in Switzerland took off in 1988 with legal measures implemented against a list of thirteen animal species – muskrats and nutrias among them. Only eighteen years later, in 2006, the first national scientific evaluation on “neobiota” and their invasiveness was conducted, which revealed that nutrias were not invasive after all. Nevertheless, the nutrias’ longstanding legal position on the list was maintained and, in 2022, underpinned by scientifically reclassifying them as an “invasive species.” This bioconstitutional formation was not elicited by any change in the behaviour of the nutrias themselves, but rather by Switzerland’s wish to conform to international pressures surrounding “invasive species.”

Nithin Bathla
Institute for Landscape and Urban Studies

ETH Zurich, CH

While the radical transformation of nature both within and beyond cities under the ongoing era of planetary urbanization has been much established in the burgeoning field of urban political ecology, there has been little discussion on the entanglement of wilderness with urban environment. With few exceptions, urban political ecology largely operates within an arboreal imaginary of nature, where wildlife remains largely in the background. This paper aims to fill this gap by examining how rewilding and urban environmentalism lead to a paradoxical and double-edged scenario characterized by the enmeshment of certain wildlife populations within the urban fabric produced through extended urbanization. This urban-wild enmeshment is illustrated by various examples, including cougar-human entanglements in the extended urban landscapes of North America, wolf-human entanglements in Europe, and leopard-human entanglements in India, all of which challenge traditional legal definitions of territory. The increasing presence of leopards (Panthera pardus) in India’s urban landscapes amidst rapid urban transformation of agrarian landscapes and wilderness presents an intriguing case for exploration. Such wildlife, actively adapting to anthropogenic changes, now thrives in highly urbanized landscapes, thereby challenging traditional notions of nature-culture and urban-wild separation. This paper delves into how rewilded urban spaces, such as parks, urban forests, safari parks, abandoned quarries, waterfronts, and green corridors, unintentionally create spaces for wildlife mobility, exemplified by leopards. Conversely, it investigates how wild animals engage with urban environments as observant participants, sensing and occupying ecological niches opened by urbanization. To address these questions, the paper employs an ethnographic analysis of human-leopard interactions in the rapidly urbanizing landscapes of the Northern Aravalli bioregion in India, spanning between the cities of Delhi and Jaipur. Through this analysis, the paper seeks to shed light on the complex dynamics of urban-wild enmeshment and its implications for urban planning, wildlife conservation, and human-wildlife coexistence in the era of planetary urbanization

From Coffee to Eucalyptus Plantation Aesthetics
The Longue-Durée of Soil Exploitation in Southeastern Brazil

Denise Bertschi
Doctoral Researcher/Artist
École Polytechnique Fédérale Lausanne
LAPIS Arts of Sciences Laboratory

Informed by a longstanding artistic practice, Denise Bertschi presents her research on the entanglements of Swiss coloniality in Brazil and Switzerland under the lens of land, archive, and visuality. The enduring legacies of the plantationocene in the former Colônia Leopoldina (1818–1894) in Northeastern Brazil were heavily shaped by Swiss coffee plantation owners, who relied on slavery-based exploitation of both land and labor. The long process from land grab, and deforestation to the settlement of monocultural coffee plantations in the 19th century is echoed in the contemporary condition of Helvécia, a Quilombo community of descendants from Colônia Leopoldina’s enslaved African Brazilians and today’s orbiting megastructure of eucalyptus plantations by the largest pulp forestry company in the world. Violent memories from slavery times are highly connected to (invisible) signs in the landscape that circles today’s Helvécia and stand in stark contrast to the historiography of the Swiss plantocracy’s official archives held in the Swiss Federal Archives in Bern.

Represented and protected by a Swiss national consulate placed on the colony already in the mid-19th century in a crucial moment of Swiss nation-building, when the Confoederatio Helvetica received its first modern constitution, this research demonstrates the Swiss state’s making not only in the homeland but on distant land and its direct involvement with colonialism in Brazil.

This research uproots traces and overgrown paths of Swiss coloniality in a small-place analysis in Brazil, forcefully forgotten or on the contrary, hyper-present for the people that live in this (neo-) colonial continuum today. Through methods of field research and local knowledge, the plantation is revisited through a series of lens-based sensory methods that seek to spatialize and give an image to signifying spaces of the former plantation and compare them to the contemporary large-scale machine eucalyptus plantation. Both contribute to the long-term environmental exploitation and ruination of the land on which the nearly entirely erased ecosystem of the Mata Atlântica laid, home to the indigenous community of the Krenak (formerly called Botokuden).

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