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oads and railways are key determinants of the Capitalocene, affording the circulation that undergirds the global economy, while contributing to habitat destruction and species loss on a vast scale. In recent decades, a scientific subfield, road ecology, has emerged to study, and to mitigate, the ecological effects of linear transport infrastructure. The title of one of its foundational texts, Road Ecology: Science and Solutions (Forman 2003), exemplifies its practical orientation. ‘Road ecology in some ways resembles epidemiology and public works planning more than wildlife biology’, writes Alexandra Koelle (2012: 656).
The interdisciplinary field of political ecology in turn asks us to examine the political entailments of the production of ecological knowledge, as well as the ways in which ecological relations are inextricably bound up with political ones. How, then, can we parse the political in road ecology? In this short essay I show how recent approaches to infrastructure and to human-nonhuman relations across the social sciences can help us to sketch out a political road ecology. I suggest that thinking with road ecology can expand conceptions of politics to include nonhumans, but argue that we must also reflect upon the way its science and solutions can shape human publics in various ways. I also highlight the distinctive ontology of roads, as both causes of ecological harm, and as ways of knowing that harm.
Roads are freighted with promises of development and modernity through the connectivity they provide (Harvey and Knox 2012). However, from the very beginning of the automobile age their ecological effects have also provoked unease. In the US, anxieties in the first half of the twentieth century about the threat which roads posed to wildlife catalysed the movement to protect wilderness areas (Sutter 2002). Early attempts to counteract this threat sought to use fencing to render highways impermeable (Kroll 2015), which might prevent collisions, but exacerbated the problem of habitat fragmentation. As anthropologists of infrastructure have observed, roads have the capacity to separate as much as connect (Pedersen and Bunkenborg 2012). However, not all species are equally put off by roads; red kites, for example, are drawn to them by the presence of roadkill (Weston 2020).
Road ecology emerged as a named subfield at the turn of the millennium. Habitat fragmentation was a key consideration, and prompted road ecologists to propose solutions amenable to infrastructure planners, based around permeability and mitigation. Famous examples include the two overpasses above the Trans-Canada Highway as it runs through the Banff National Park, the ecoducts over the Hoge Veluwe National Park in the Netherlands, and the wildlife passageways under the Qinghai-Tibet Railway in China (more of which later).
We can regard such mitigation infrastructure as the outcome of a ‘more-than-human politics’, enabled by road ecology, which allows us to learn about, and take into account, the desired mobility of nonhumans. This ‘more-than-human politics’ involves expanding conventional understandings of politics to include controversies in which nonhumans have interests, and conceiving of the techniques and technologies used by road ecologists as ways in which nonhumans might express these interests and thus become political subjects (Metzger 2014). This understanding of politics, in which both humans and nonhumans have interests which must be taken into account, then yields a form of compromise: humans desire for mobility is recognised by the building of roads, while the desire of nonhumans for mobility is acknowledged by the building of mitigation infrastructure. Such a compromise does not seek to preserve a pristine nature apart from human society; instead, it accords with the idea, advocated by posthumanist scholars, that humans and nonhumans are ‘always already irrevocably intertwined’ (Metzger 2014: 200).
Spectacles of co-existence
But rather than seeing such infrastructure merely as the result of a more-than-human politics, we also need to be attuned to the possible effects of such infrastructure on human publics. The underpasses and overpasses that are the material ends of road ecology are designed to be incorporated into the lifeworlds of nonhumans, unnoticed and taken for granted in the way that some scholars have suggested is characteristic of infrastructure in general (Star 1999). Other scholars, however, argue that infrastructure can also have aesthetic qualities that exceed its technical functions; indeed, its potential as highly visible spectacles make it an important means by which the state manifests itself to its citizens (Schwenkel 2015). Mitigation infrastructure, I suggest, can have both these characteristics at the same time: it becomes spectacular for humans by virtue of nonhumans appearing to take it for granted.
Since the very purpose of mitigation infrastructure is to avoid physical encounters between humans and nonhumans, such spectacular events are themselves reliant upon media infrastructures, including cameras, newspapers and websites. These have afforded the proliferation of images (often taken with camera traps) of charismatic nonhuman ‘commuters’ crossing roads (e.g. Bizjak 2018). What should we make of this enthusiasm for images of animals using purpose-built infrastructure? There is perhaps something reassuring about these images of animals aided rather than obstructed by infrastructure constructed by humans (Koelle 2012). They appear to suggest that the spatialized socioeconomic arrangements we have constructed around the car are compatible with nonhumans carrying on their lives as normal: technosphere and biosphere in harmony. But while we are comforted to see images if cute animals skipping through underpasses, rather than splattered on tarmac, these spectacles of co-existence obscure the slower ecological violence resulting from roads, including carbon emissions, but also, for example, the seepage (Cons 2017) of toxic runoff – protracted processes rather than charismatic spectacles.
We can consider the way in which mitigation infrastructure might seek to neutralize the dissent that road-building has often inspired, thus allowing the fossil fuel-enabled circulation of goods and people characteristic of the Capitalocene to continue without disruption. In the 1990s the UK witnessed a series of large-scale protests against road-building, motivated by ecological concerns. At some of the sites, protestors constructed and occupied tunnels underneath the planned route, thereby literally undermining the road-building. These innovative forms of direct action created their own subversive media spectacles, drawing public attention to the destruction inherent in road building (Barry 2001).
Spectacles of co-existence can also buttress state projects of territorial consolidation. In 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics, the editor of a regional Chinese newspaper resigned in the wake of a fake photo scandal. The photo in question, which had been picked up and circulated by media outlets around the world in 2006, appeared to show a herd of endangered Tibetan antelopes skipping merrily underneath a railway line, as a train passed overhead. The newspaper reported that 33 passageways had been built to allow the migration of these endangered animals. Even after the photograph had been exposed as a fake, Chinese scientists insisted that Tibetan wildlife was indeed ‘getting used to the railway’ (Yang and Xia 2008), and offered their own images of antelopes using passageways.
The charisma of this image which impelled its circulation around the world produced a fleeting global public who could marvel at China’s infrastructural ambition, as well as its apparent benevolence towards the natural world. In this instance, mitigation infrastructure becomes the stage on which state ideology is performed, with antelopes enrolled as actors whose alleged willingness to use the passageways could be cited to legitimise Chinese rule in Tibet. The railway in question, which connects Beijing to Lhasa in Tibet, was completed in 2006, in time for it to transport the Olympic Torch for part of its journey across China. The charismatic Tibetan antelope had been the focus of China’s embryonic conservation movement in the 1990s, and a cute cartoon rendering of this animal had been chosen as one of the mascots of the 2008 Olympics. If they could ‘get used to the railway’, in the words of the Chinese scientists, they appeared to support the claim that China’s ‘modernization’ of Tibet does not come at the cost of environmental destruction, a charge made by the Tibetan government-in-exile.
Whereas mitigation infrastructure, and the spectacles of co-existence it affords, could be seen as ways of smoothing over political controversies and reassuring human publics, the methodologies of road ecology can instead produce anxious subjects attuned to the signs of ecological destruction. Road ecology is notable for drawing extensively on ‘citizen science’, involving non-experts in the production of scientific knowledge. Project Splatter at Cardiff University in the UK, for example, mobilizes road users to report sightings of roadkill via an app. It thus reprises a tradition of automobility as method that emerged early on in the history of the car, and which even included using the speedometer as a tool for measuring the speed of a bird’s flight (Kroll 2015).
Rather than mere ‘data gathering’, such projects cultivate ‘the arts of noticing’ (Tsing 2015). The scientists involved in the project teach us to pay attention not only mangled corpses but also worrying absences; they retune relief at the relative lack of squashed hedgehogs to concern at the decline in their population. Despite the apparent detachment suggested by the references to ‘splatter’, and by the practices of enumeration upon which they rely, these projects, and the methods of road ecology more generally, involve mundane acts of witnessing (Koelle 2012).
Even as they contribute to damaged ecologies, roads also enable ways of knowing, and feeling, damage. This is exemplified by what has become known as the ‘windshield phenomenon’. Many people now claim that their car windshields are almost entirely free of insect splatter, in stark contrast to the mess that they had to scrape off decades ago. These claims are repeated by some entomologists. In a recent article in Science, one of these scientists, who describes himself as a ‘very data driven person’, notes that it is a ‘very visceral reaction when you don’t see that mess anymore’ (Vogel 2017). This affective response is one of alarm at the extent of anthropogenic species loss, in this case through the use of pesticides.
While the wildlife crossings proposed by road ecologists have the noble aim of reducing the adverse ecological effects of infrastructure, we are entitled to maintain a degree of wariness towards the reassurance they proffer. Rather than uncritically celebrating the co-existence apparently enabled by mitigation infrastructure, and driving on as normal, we should perhaps embrace a demotic road ecology, noting that roads can be a way in which we apprehend the violence of the Capitalocene in our everyday lives. The splatter on windshields or by the sides of roads, or indeed its striking absence in the case of certain species, can nourish a visceral sense that something is amiss. This anxiety might then prompt us to think beyond ‘mitigation’ and instead ask more fundamental political questions about the alleged necessity and inevitability of car-enabling infrastructure and the petrocapitalism which it affords.
Bizjak, T. 2018. See the critter ‘commuters’ using the tunnel under Highway 50. The Sacremento Bee. Available here.
Cons, J. 2017. Seepage. In the series ‘Speaking Volumes’. Cultural Anthropology. Available here.
Koelle, A. 2012. Intimate bureaucracies: roadkill, policy, and fieldwork on the shoulder. Hypatia 27(3): 651-669.
Kroll, G. 2015. An environmental history of roadkill: road ecology and the making of the permeable highway. Environmental History 20: 4-28.
Larkin, B. 2013. The politics and poetics of infrastructure. Annual Review of Anthropology 42: 327-423
Metzger, J. 2014. The moose are protesting: the more-than-human politics of transport infrastructure development. In Planning against the political: democratic deficits in European territorial governance. J. Metzger, P. Allmendinger, S. Oosterlynck (eds.), 203-226. London: Routledge.
Pedersen, M. A. & M. Bunkenborg. Roads that separate: Sino-Mongolian relations in the Inner Asian Desert. Mobilities 7(4): 555-569.
Schwenkel, C. 2015 Spetacular infrastructure and its breakdown in Vietnam. American Ethnologist 42(3): 520-534.
Sutter, P. 2002. Driven wild: how the fight against automobiles launched the modern wilderness movement. Seattle: University of Washington Press
Tsing, A. 2015. The mushroom at the end of the world: on the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Vogel, G. 2017. Where have all the insects gone? Science. Available here.
Weston, P. 2020. ‘We’ve covered huge swathes of the UK in tarmac’: how roads affect birds. The Guardian. September 1 2020.
Yang, Q. and L. Xia. 2008. Tibetan wildlife is getting used to the railway. Nature 452: 810-811.
Thomas White works on the relationship between pastoralists, infrastructure, and the environment in northern China. He is a lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, and also part of the project ROADWORK: An Anthropology of Infrastructure at China’s Inner Asian Borders, at the University of Zurich (roadworkasia.com).