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Location: Westminster Forum, University of Westminster, 5th floor, 32/38 Wells Street London, W1T 3UW
Speakers: Dr. Anna Lora-Wainwright, University of Oxford

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Dr Derek Hird
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It is often assumed that when citizens do not oppose pollution, it is due to their ignorance of its effects or to structural barriers to change. Based on participant observation and semi-structured interviews in a heavily industrialised village in South-West China, this paper argues that a sense of inevitability of pollution and of uncertainty about its health effects is just as important an obstacle. It shows that Baocun villagers have developed an acute environmental health consciousness. However, despite earlier instances of collective activism, they no longer oppose pollution’s harm to their bodies as a community.

Innovating upon Arun Agrawal’s work, the paper outlines the gradual formation of environmental subjects who have learnt to value their environment in ways consonant with the seemingly inevitable presence of pollution and to act accordingly. It argues that perceptions of inevitability and uncertainty were produced by (1) villagers’ dependence on their leaders and on local industries; (2) experiences with protests; and (3) an understanding of locality within the wider national project of development. By examining key instances of collective action against Linchang, a very large and partly state-owned fertiliser plant, it traces some significant shifts in locals’ demands and in their strategies for action. Conversely, it shows that village officials’ attitudes to collective action and their role in channelling local discontent and obtaining redress have changed over time. It argues that uncertainty about pollution’s effects on health is reinforced by the social, political and economic contexts and developments in the past few decades. This sheds light on the study of contentious politics in China by illustrating how parameters for contention come into being and how they are intertwined with the governance of the village and of the environment.

About the speaker

Anna Lora-Wainwright is University Lecturer in the Human Geography of China at the University of Oxford, jointly appointed in the School of Geography and the School of Interdisciplinary Area Studies. She is also a member of the Oxford University China Centre. Anna has a PhD in Anthropology from Oxford, an MA in Chinese Studies and a BA in Anthropology, both from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. She has previously worked at the University of Oxford and at the University of Manchester. Her book, Fighting for Breath: Living Morally and Dying of Cancer in a Chinese Village, forthcoming with University of Hawaii Press,is the first ethnography to offer a bottom-up account of how families strive to make sense of cancer and care for sufferers in contemporary rural China. Based on 18 months of fieldwork, it examines lay perceptions of illness causality and everyday practices of care as prisms to understand what is at stake in the contemporary, reform-era. She has published widely on perceptions of wellbeing, environment, and rural life in China in the Journal of Contemporary China, Social Anthropology and in a number of other journals and edited books. Her most recent work concerns the interface between pollution and illness in rural industrialising China, particularly the impact of citizens’ perceptions of environmental damage to health on rising environmental justice movements, grassroots environmentalisms and citizen science. She has organised and taken part in several interdisciplinary workshops on these topics, including collaborations with the China Environment and Health Initiative (SSRC). Her research was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the British Academy, the Leverhulme Trust, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.