I am interested in how people live with doubt of many kinds. As an environmental anthropologist working in postindustrial Baltimore, this interest takes a couple forms: there is the uncertainty that comes with the unraveling of former life-worlds, and there is the kind that hangs in the air when one lives in an ambiguously toxic place. My work attends to both—and more—asking how people plant their feet and relate to the future from a present marked by such profound irresolution. There are many different answers to the question. Some fearsome, some bitter, some hopeful. All of them creative.
I’m currently writing a book based on this research, Forgotten in Anticipation: Baltimore After Progress. The book explores the formative role of the uncertain future in American life, from the vantage point of Baltimore’s southernmost neighborhood. Based on 24 months of fieldwork among residents, activists, industrialists, and bureaucrats there, and archival study covering more than 200 years, it tells the story of a place built on profound uncertainties: from the neighborhood’s early life as a quarantine zone under precautionary public-health regimes; through years provisioning the military for both real and speculative warfare; and culminating in plans to build the nation’s largest trash incinerator. While the rise and fall of domestic industry is often cast as a tale about progress and its discontents, the view from here reveals that future-making in the United States has long hinged on managing doubt. By following how people navigate this doubt and orient themselves toward new futures, this work seeks insight into the many paths we might yet take to deal with global climate change.
Besides the book, my Baltimore-based work has been published in peer-reviewed journals, most recently Cultural Anthropology, American Ethnologist, Anthropological Theory, and Engaging Science, Technology, and Society. I’ve also written for more public-facing venues, like Somatosphere and SAPIENS.
As for what’s next? I’m in the early stages of two different projects. One focuses on how Baltimore is working to steel the city for increasingly strange weather, through the challenging work of climate adaptation. The other follows disparate approaches to the phenomenon of “eco-anxiety,” from the clinic to the boardroom to the streets. The latter is inspired in part by my students at Cornell, who manage to do bold environmental work while being honest about the ways they feel its weight.
Photo taken by Chloe Ahmann in 2016: public park in South Baltimore City, in close proximity to a major coal export terminal.