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A “Stupid Little Fish”: Science, Law and the Politics of Environmental Decline in California

Event Type
Department of Sociology
wifi event
Sep 20, 2021   11:00 am  
Dr. Caleb Scoville
Originating Calendar
Department of Sociology

Assistant Professor of Sociology, Dr. Caleb Scoville from Tufts University will be presenting on A “Stupid Little Fish”: Science, Law and the Politics of Environmental Decline in California. 


Abstract: "The Delta Smelt is a tiny endangered species of fish found only in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the heart of California’s water system. Legal protections of this once obscure species have made it a central figure in California’s so-called “water wars,” mobilizing political actors from the local level to the presidency. In this talk, I will show that contrary to dominant accounts, the conflict surrounding the Delta Smelt isn’t simply about the distribution of water. Drawing on archival sources, field observations, interviews, and the systematic analysis of media data, I will argue that the controversy emerged via sequential clashes among social domains which share jurisdiction over the nonhuman environment yet see “nature” in different ways. I call this process the “intervention cascade.” First, I will show that rather than simply being driven to near-extinction by the operation of California’s hydraulic infrastructure, the Delta Smelt only came to be understood as a unique species and an object of potential environmental concern through the very process of building the state’s extractive water distribution system in the first place. Second, I will show how the Delta Smelt became enrolled as a political symbol in America’shyper-partisan culture wars in ways that have become increasingly decoupled from its modest impacts on water policy. By following the entanglements of infrastructure, science, law and a polarized public sphere, I show how environmental change mediates social conflicts, sometimes in ironic ways."


Bio: "Caleb Scoville is an Assistant Professor of Sociologyand at Tufts University, and a faculty affiliate with the Environmental Studies Program at Tuftsand an affiliate of the Research Cluster on Comparative Inequality and Inclusionat the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. He studies the politics of environmental knowledge, and is particularly interested in how “nature” takes on meaning at the intersections of various social and technical domains in the context of political conflict andenvironmental change.In a current book project on the case of the delta smelt, an endangered species of fish caught in the center of California’s “water wars,” he analyzes the dynamic interplay of extractive infrastructure, science, law, and public sphere controversy in response to water scarcity and biodiversity loss. This work has received awards from the American Sociological Association’s sections on Environmental Sociology, Science Knowledge and Technology, and Animals and Society, as well as the Pacific Sociological Association and the University of California, Berkeley’s Department of Sociology, where I completed my doctoral studies. During his graduate studies at Berkeley, I held fellowships sponsored by the Center for the Study of Law & Society, the Institute of Governmental Studies, the Center for Technology, Society & Policy, and the Algorithmic Fairness and Opacity Working Group.

His work has been published (or is forthcoming) in the American Journal of Sociology, Theory and Society, Theory Culture and Society, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, One Earth, Science as Culture, Citizenship Studies, Ethics Policy and Environment, The Berkeley Journal of Sociology, and The New Handbook of Political Sociology(Cambridge University Press)."

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