Who or what can we rely on in the face of catastrophe? What hope is there for democracy in a warming globe? My research examines how political actors address these questions as they respond to the local symptoms of climate change, such as natural disasters.
My book project, “Citizens of a Warming Globe: Natural Disasters and the New Politics of Risk,” focuses on how state and civil society actors are competing to shape post-disaster reforms in surprising ways. I examine this through a paired comparison of Oman and the United States, two countries that have fundamental differences in terms of their state-society relations that would lead observers to expect little overlap in terms of political outcomes. Yet my interviews, archival research, and ethnographic observations reveal similar contention in the aftermath of natural disasters. I argue that this overlap is the outcome of a similar process in each country: twentieth-century political movements rose to government power by campaigning on the promise to protect citizens in the face of ecological and economic crises. This new vision of state-society relations converged with media technologies that, for the first time, allowed national publics to consume news of governments’ responses to disaster in “real-time.” Such spectacles of government action or neglect in the face of emergencies are providing new opportunities for political entrepreneurs of many stripes, including nationalist and social justice movements, to capture public attention on recovery efforts and advocate for broader political agendas. In doing so, these actors represent a significant, but understudied counter-force to the favored repertoires of technocratic or neoliberal policy agendas for mitigating climate change.
Below is a list of papers and previous projects outside of my book project. All papers are available upon request.
Previous Projects and Working Papers
“Making and Scheduling Citizens: Political Time and the Democratic Potential of Hurricanes,” New Political Science, March 2020.
This paper is a supplement to the one-sided diet of spatial concepts, metaphors, and case studies used by scholars to feed our thinking on how everyday people form into collective political agents. Drawing from interviews and ethnographic observations of a post-Hurricane Sandy relief effort, I highlight how people’s sense of time can draw them to political action. To make sense out of this dimension, I excavate from Sheldon Wolin’s work two concepts for thinking about political time and how events like hurricanes can instigate extraordinary acts of political participation. I argue that insofar as a natural disaster is perceived as a crisis, it can break the boundaries of the “time zones” in which we are normally isolated, and the established “rhythms” that schedule and limit citizen participation. Such a process helps spread a sense of common fate, and the need for people to act on its behalf in unscripted ways.
“Scattered Strangers become ‘the People:’ Making Occupy Sandy through a Shared Sense of Time,” (revised and resubmitted).
In this paper, I argue that shared notions of public time can function like public space, serving as the “between” that allows for the formation of new political actors. For this, I conduct a case study of "Occupy Sandy," a hurricane recovery effort that was organized in response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Occupy Sandy was populated by former participants in OWS, as well as previously unaffiliated individuals. I examine how these geographically separate individuals came to see themselves as a collective agent, acting sometimes as “Occupy Sandy,” and sometimes as “the People.” They were able to do so because they saw themselves as enacting a common practice, sometimes called “mutual aid,” “helptivism,” or “a People’s Recovery,” all within a shared moment of urgency. Being part of the group meant doing this politicized recovery work simultaneous to other strangers scattered throughout the scenes of post-hurricane destruction. As such, Occupy Sandy demonstrates how people’s sense of time, like space, can help unite strangers into a political collective, one that makes public claims on behalf of "the People."
"Cyclones, Spectacles, and Citizenship: The Politicization of Natural Disasters in the US and Oman," (PhD Dissertation, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2020).
In the face of such complex, urgent threats of fires, floods, and increasingly powerful storms, many scholars warn that climate change puts us on the path to a technocratic, “rule of experts” for the sake of survival. Others warn that climate change will actually undermine the authority of governments, as they become increasingly unable to meet the basic needs of their citizens. In this dissertation, I draw from interviews, archival research, and ethnographic observations in the US and Oman to examine how power and historical context shape the way that these societies politicize natural disasters. These two countries have fundamental differences in terms of their state-society relations. Yet responses to recent tropical cyclones demonstrate that each country manifests similar contention in the face of disaster. Contemporary Americans and Omanis treat large-scale natural disasters as unplanned spectacles of interdependence, attention-grabbing symbols of their nation’s fate in an emergency. Officials and dissidents alike are seizing upon the public’s attention to these symbols, competing to anchor them to their own agendas. For example, disasters are treated as “revelations” about the legitimacy of government authorities, or “lessons” about public values other than safety from disaster, such as social justice and religious piety. Such disaster-contention in the US and Oman is a relatively new phenomena. It emerged in the early- and mid-twentieth century by virtue of the spread of new communication technologies that made it possible to conceive of “national emergencies,” and by an expanded vision for government and civic responsibility, making such emergencies problems for the government to solve. I argue that this record of contention shows that disasters are not partisan to technocratic order, nor are they conveyor belts to chaos. As the most attention-grabbing manifestations of climate change are treated as spectacles of interdependence, they provide opportunities for political entrepreneurs of many stripes, including nationalist and democratic movements that deride the rule of experts. The political consequences of climate change are therefore contingent upon the historically constructed nature of interpretive frameworks, like “citizenship” and “national emergency,” and how officials and dissidents utilize them to give political meaning to calamity.
The first section of this paper draws from British and Omani archives to demonstrate the imperial origins of this new social contract. These archives document a shift in the mode of rule by British imperial officers in the 1960s and 1970s, largely in response to pressure from mid-twentieth century anti-imperialist movements. The second section documents how British officers carried out this new project, waging a “hearts and minds” campaign by showing off modern roads, schools, hospitals, and the like. The new Oman was to be a modern nation wherein the health, safety, and prosperity of the Omani people became the goals of statecraft. The third section of this paper draws from interviews, Omani media, and archival research to demonstrate how this new social contract helped to politicize environmental hazards in Oman. Focusing on recent attempts to mobilize grievances in the aftermath of floods, cyclones, and industrial pollution, I show how dissidents are using the spectacles that these problems create as opportunities to pressure for government reform. They are doing so by drawing upon the values ennobled by the renaissance to publically frame such destruction as a failure of government authority.
"Writing Our Crisis, Writing Our Tradition: the Temporal Innovations of Hannah Arendt, Fatima Mernissi, and Mohammed 'Abed al-Jabri," (working paper).
Speaking of a past catastrophe may be dangerous. By fixing our gaze on the destructive events of the past and their potential return, a sentiment sometimes expressed as "never again," such talk poses the risk of hiding ongoing catastrophes. This paper compares the work of three twentieth-century thinkers, each of whom theorized an alternative way of understanding catastrophes. Instead of by-gone events, they see catastrophes in the present-tense, as crises. For this, I examine Hannah Arendt's critique of American "mass society," Fatima Mernissi's critique of female veiling practices in Islamic jurisprudence, and Mohammed 'Abed al-Jabri's account of the loss of critical reason in Arab culture and the corresponding Western colonial domination of Arab societies. Each of these figures wrote of an overwhelming loss, a catastrophe in the past that constitutes an ongoing era of crisis that must be answered in the present. Building upon Quinten Skinner's "recovery of intentions" approach to reading political texts, I read the temporal character of each author's narrative as speech acts. How they use history, discuss the present, and project into the future are political interventions, attempts to excavate and legitimize a "lost tradition" that might guide their readers out of the present crisis. For Ardent, it is a tradition of political action exemplified in the American Revolution and in the days of underground resistance to the Nazis. For both Mernissi and Jabri, it is a tradition of scientific thought, a rational-critical method that could weed out the false ideologies that have cowed Arab society into patriarchy (Mernissi) or conformity, impotence, and religious fundamentalism (Jabri). In these speech acts, each author performs what they consider to be their audiences' relevant history, a tradition, and attempts to recover or re-learn some lost gem which can guide "us" out of the crisis. The crisis thus evokes a shared group of victims in historical time, victims with a history to be explored and authorized for the sake of retrieving collective agency. In each of these cases, then, theorizing the crisis as an arena for collective action requires a narrative of shared identity, one that is rooted in a historical legacy of loss that stretches into the past, and a common fate of recovery stretching into the future.
“(Un)Making Threats out of Race in the War on Terror: Contesting the Dynamics of Exclusion on America’s Domestic Front.”
This paper is a subset of my MA Thesis from the University of Toronto, which examines the co-constitutive relationship between national identity and notions of security. The paper itself is a case-study, examining how Arab and Muslim Americans were racialized in popular discourse in the aftermath of 9/11, and how that racial imagination informed the ways that individuals were variously coded as "friends," "enemies," and "strangers" in the initiatives of the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and community policing programs.
“Religious Aspects of Ecology: Christianity and Daoism.” University of Wisconsin La Crosse Journal of Undergraduate Research IX (2006); republished in Conference Proceedings of the 2006 National Conference of Undergraduate Research Ashville, North Carolina.
I wrote this piece as an undergraduate student, with the help of an Undergraduate Research Grant. It reflects my early interests in exploring the intersection of ideology and political ecology. In the paper, I synthesize the findings of approximately sixty scholarly publications that explore the ecological themes within Christianity and Daoism, and their changing, ambiguous relationship to environmental ethics.