An interview with Amy Zhang
Our guest this week is Amy Zhang, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at New York University. Amy holds a BA (Honors) in English Literature from Simon Fraser University, an M.A. in Globalization Studies from McMaster University, and a PhD in Anthropology and School of Forestry and Environmental Studies from Yale University. Her research focuses on the politics of environmental management and urbanization in contemporary China. This research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (Canada). Prior to joining NYU, Amy was the An Wang Postdoctoral fellow in Environmental Humanities at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. Amy's scholarship has featured in journals including Current Anthropology (2021), Cultural Anthropology (2020), Made in China (2019), and China Perspectives (2014), and in the edited volumes Can Science and Technology Save China? (2020) and Fueling Culture (2017). Amy's current book project explores how waste infrastructures, materials and their technical interventions ground and condition the forms, possibilities and limits of China’s emerging urban environmental politics.
Hello, Amy, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. To get us started, could you tell us how you came to be interested in the politics of environmental management and urbanization in contemporary China, personally and/or professionally?
Thanks so much Sophie, for this invitation, it’s great to be in conversation.
I lived in China in the lead up to the Olympic games after completing my M.A. I worked for a number of different organizations; as an intern for the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, a campaigner for Greenpeace, and assistant producer for CBS News. I spent a little over two years in China, working and living in Taiyuan, a large city in the coal-producing region in northern China, and in Beijing. China’s cities were growing rapidly and the country was changing quickly. Pollution was becoming a big and visible problem. Construction was everywhere in Beijing, but it was often difficult to see the new skyscrapers or ring-roads through the smog.
Four years later, I had moved to the US to do a PhD and was back in China to start my field research. While the authoritarian regime in China makes many forms of political expression impossible, environmental issues represented an opportunity for citizen participation. Many of the civil society organizations that I worked with were eager to play a greater role in China’s environmental governance. The themes and questions I had laid in out in my research plan — waste management and urbanization — emerged out of an interest in an issue that had received relatively little attention in mainstream media coverage, that tended to focus on air pollution or China’s large infrastructures like dams. Waste, a ubiquitous aspect of everyday life in cities, presented an opportunity for me to investigate many of the themes that I was interested in – the nation’s techno-scientific approach to the environment, citizen participation, labor, and the potential forms of citizen action that can emerge.
In 2020, you were awarded the Bonnie J. McCay Junior Scholar Award for your Cultural Anthropology paper, “Circularity and Enclosures: Metabolizing Waste with the Black Soldier Fly.” How and why is metabolism a generative lens for rethinking the relationship between urban waste and animal labor?
Metabolism refers to exchanges of energy between an organism and its environment. It’s been an important idea in the natural sciences and in political ecology because it describes conversion and exchange between entities and across various scales. I was drawn to metabolism as a lens because an associated idea, the metabolic rift, captures something central to the process of urbanization and the resulting aggregation of waste. Marxist ecologists use metabolic rift to describe the environmental crisis that emerges from the capitalist mode of production. Marx interpreted the aggregate of excrement and industrial waste found in cities as an index of the problems generated by industrial agriculture. Industrial production upset the self-restorative capacity of soil by hindering the return of excrement — endowed with nature’s latent power for self-restoration — to the site of production. Urbanization further exacerbated the metabolic rift, increasing the scale of waste aggregated in cities.
My article is a case study of an experimental waste management technology that reconfigures
the metabolic capacity of the black soldier fly (BSF) into a biotechnology in order to close or
narrow the metabolic rift. In the context of the experiment, the BSF’s capacity to consume and
breakdown organics, became an object of scientific scrutiny, calibrated to match the output of
human waste output in the city. The goal of the experiment, a system to manage waste, meant
successfully managing and manipulating the life-cycle of insects as a technology to reconcile the
contradictions of urban growth. Metabolism here illuminates the contradiction at the heart of the
green capitalist’s approach to environmental remediation. A supposed ecological solution to
development also perpetuates capitalism’s continuous incursion and expropriation of nature.
Elsewhere (Zhang 2020), I point out that the deployment of these forms of “indigenous innovation”
is a key part of China’s techno-scientific mode of environmental remediation.
Adult larvae in the last week of their life cycle resting on leaves in the arboretum. Photo by Amy Zhang. From “Circularity and Metabolism” in Cultural Anthropology 2020: https://journal.culanth.org/index.php/ca/article/view/4012/509
You’re currently working on a book that explores how waste infrastructures, materials, and technical interventions shape the forms, possibilities, and limits of China’s emerging urban environmental politics. What methods and theories do you deploy in this book, and what do you see as their key strengths?
China has a long history of material scarcity and reuse. The country’s transition to a consumer economy and the domestic waste crisis that followed are recent phenomena. In my research, I am interested in breaking down the category of municipal waste by first and foremost disaggregating the different types of matter found in the waste stream. Aside from being influenced by a materialist approach in environmental anthropology, I draw on the method of controversy studies in STS that emphasizes moments of dispute, when facts are destabilized, expertise challenged and new actors enrolled into a forum of collective deliberation. Rather than beginning with studying one particular group, the subjects in my study emerge around particular moments of dispute and contestation. One of the strengths of this method is that ethnography becomes not only the starting point of theory but also of fieldwork, where the researcher slowly discovers which subjects are key to the debates and conflict. During my own fieldwork, this method yielded many moments of ethnographic surprise that challenged my previous assumptions of how people saw and understood waste, and how different urbanites, villagers, middle class professionals and migrant workers, mobilized politically and socially through waste.
Your academic trajectory is remarkably diverse, traversing the fields of English literature, globalization studies, anthropology, and forestry and environmental studies. What, in your view, does an interdisciplinary approach offer for contemporary understandings of human-environment relations, and what challenges does putting such an approach into practice entail?
Interdisciplinary training prepares a researcher to consider a question from multiple vantage points.
This ability to engage different methods, theories and questions, for me, generates a sense of
estrangement, which also nurtures an ongoing sense of curiosity. The academy remains in many
ways, today, discipline specific. Interdisciplinary collaborations and projects are also riddled with
the problems of knowledge and power. How can all disciplinary perspectives be represented and
heard when some disciplines produce forms of knowledge that can more easily translate into
funding and policy, the metrics that research institutions rely on to gauge impact and success?
I think there is a growing consensus that the environmental crisis cannot be solved by any single
discipline alone. It’s become even more critical in the era of climate change and degradation for
scholars to experiment, work and think across disciplinary boundaries. Recognizing the challenges
to interdisciplinary approaches within the academy can be a way to push the conversation on how
best to nurture more fruitful, engaged, and meaningful collaborations.
Finally, Amy, what advice would you give to scholars interested in studying morethanhuman worlds?
One of the most exciting aspects of a morethanhuman approach for me, is the capacity to cultivate an “art of noticing” (Tsing 2015), to attend to the miniscule, mundane elements or forms of life. I think that this approach is critical for all researchers, not just those working with multispecies ethnography or environmental studies.
An eco-enzyme brewer dips her finger into the mold-like substance on top of the brew. Photograph by Amy Zhang. From ”From Immunity to Collaboration” in Current Anthropology 2021: https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/715542
"I was drawn to metabolism as a lens because an associated idea, the metabolic rift, captures something central to the process of urbanization and the resulting aggregation of waste."
"Recognizing the challenges to interdisciplinary approaches within the academy can be a way to push the conversation on how best to nurture more fruitful, engaged, and meaningful collaborations."