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Theory and Society

, Volume 48, Issue 1, pp 1–37 | Cite as

Hydraulic society and a “stupid little fish”: toward a historical ontology of endangerment

  • Caleb ScovilleEmail author
Article

Abstract

Endangered species are objects of intense scientific scrutiny and political conflict. This article focuses on the interplay among human-nonhuman relations, knowledge production, and the politics of endangerment. Advancing a historical ontology of endangerment, it highlights the role of transforming the nonhuman world in the coming to be of new objects of environmental knowledge. Such knowledge can provide the basis for credible claims of endangerment, facilitating mobilizations against the very human-nonhuman relations that produced it. An in-depth case study of the delta smelt, an endangered species of fish caught in the center of California’s “water wars,” shows how changes in the instrumentalization of the nonhuman environment can produce new knowledge of nature that allows actors to make claims and form coalitions that would be otherwise inconceivable. Because its sole habitat is the hub of California’s water delivery system, efforts to save the species from extinction have reduced flows to farms and cities, fomenting conflict between environmentalists and water users. This article demonstrates that the taxonomic classification of the delta smelt as a species and evidence of its decline arose directly from the reengineering of California’s rivers for extractive ends. Ironically, the knowledge on which environmental advocates relied was a product of the instrumental relation to nature that they sought to transform.

Keywords

Biological classification California water Endangered species Environmental politics Human-nonhuman relations Taxonomic science 

Notes

Acknowledgments

The research presented in this article was partially supported with funding from the University of California, Berkeley Center for the Study of Law & Society’s Berkeley Empirical Studies Fellowship. I am deeply indebted to Razvan Amironesei, Rebecca Elliott, Neil Fligstein, Marion Fourcade, Andrew Lakoff, and John Lie for their detailed comments. I acknowledge additional helpful comments during various stages of this project by Irene Bloemraad, Boroka Bo, Jonah Stuart Brundage, Michael Burawoy, Olivier Clain, Alex DiBranco, Cyrus Dioun, Holly Doremus, Martin Eiermann, Michel Estefan, Julian Fulton, Isabel García, Pat Hastings, Jacob Hellman, Andrew Jaeger, Xuan Jin, Sunmin Kim, Daniel N. Kluttz, Michael Kowen, Joe Labriola, Santiago Molina, Calvin Morrill, Richard Norgaard, Michelle Phillips, Alex Roehrkasse, Nina Golec Scoville, Ike Sharpless, Benjamin Shestakofsky, Mary Shi, Sameer Srivastava, Matthew J. Stimpson, Adam Storer, Ann Swidler, Byron Villacis, Richard Walker, and Uğur Yıldırım. The Editors and reviewers at Theory and Society, as well as anonymous reviewers in a previous review process, were also very helpful. All errors are my own. Earlier versions of this work were presented at the 2016 Genial and Ephemeral Meeting in Sociology, the Center for Culture, Organizations, and Politics workshop in 2017, and the 2017 conference, “The Hydraulic Society, Revisited,” all at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as the “Politics, Ethics, Ontology” seminar at the University of California, San Diego in 2016, and the 2017 meeting of the American Sociological Association in Montréal.

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of California, BerkeleyBerkeleyUSA

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